inside thoughts on China and beyond

Chinese Dream

In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke his legendary words: “I have a dream” and within days it became the dream of millions.  Exactly 50 years later, Xi Jinping revealed his slogan: “Zhongguo meng” the “China Dream” (also translated as: Chinese Dream). That was months ago, and millions are still wondering what he meant by it. 

Some days ago my family and I craved for shaokao. As it is, we crave for it everyday; without it, we become moody and start trembling. Let me explain this. As you probably know (and you would really disappoint me if you didn’t, so don’t tell me) Chengdu is well-known for its food. The Sichuan cuisine. I’m not sure why, really. Any flavor the food may have had is lost in the overwhelming and taste-buds numbing amount of lajiao and huajiao (hot red peppers and even more hot pepper grains). And if that isn’t enough, whatever taste may have survived is neutralized by endless streams of oil -and if it isn’t your day, re-used oil. But there is one local specialty for which you can wake me up at night: shaokao. Top-class Sichuanese street barbecue. Small skewers of meat and veggies and toufu and fish, sprinkled with sufficient oil and herbs. Chengdu style barbecue is on every street corner, every evening. It is always sold from a bicycle-cart-turned-mobile-restaurant, complete with little tables and stools and crates of beer, producing nice nightly hangout terraces enveloped in thick fog of fragrance and carbon monoxide that can be seen from miles away. It’s all part of package. The truth is: Chengdu without shaokao is as a panda without black spots.

Anyway, just as for all other Chengdunese, shaokao is our “China Dream”. And thus we set off for a stroll to our regular street corner for a good bite. But our man wasn’t there. His corner was empty. We looked around the corner but our seller was not to be seen or smelled; nor any of his many competitors whom normally also crowd the streets and sidewalks. Had they all just vanished? What had happened to our dream?

Well, let me not keep you in suspense any longer than needed; this is what happened: Chengdu had managed to attract the Fortune 500 Forum. That was the dream of some Chengdu officials. Chengdu is desperately trying to prove itself, shake off its inferior backward wild-west village reputation and be known around the world as a city that counts. As a recent promo video exclaimed, Chengdu is to be “a landmark which commands the world and is looked upon by the world with respect”. (Somethings never change, huh?) Knowing that the Olympics was out of their league and that the World Expo mistakingly ended up in Shanghai, this ambitious village settled for serving the CEOs of the world’s 500 most fortunate companies -and their entourage. And serving they did! The 2nd Ring Road, a boulevard circling the inner-city, has been elevated -all around- and it all had to be ready before the Fortune 500 forum. Ugly apartment blocks, leftovers from a period everyone prefers to forget, were given a facelift. But only on the outside, and only on the side visible from the 2nd Ring Road. Schools were closed, factories shut down, flights redirected, roads blocked, streets swept clean and tricycle taxis and street vendors banned. Months of chaos, all for this 4-day forum. And that’s when we lost our shaokao seller. Sacrificing a few to serve the higher purpose is a returning phenomena in China’s long history. Is that the Chinese Dream?

It amazes me how China’s new president Xi Jinping (truth is, he is much more than just the president; he is also the  Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the husband of China’s most famous singer Peng Liyuan -wouldn’t you love to see his business card!)  got everyone wondering with his stirring phrase “Zhongguo meng”.  Especially since he forgot to explain it. As it is, China has many dreamers already: those who made it to the top and those who are hoping to make it; and now -just as in the outside world- it has even more dream-interpreters as well. When Martin L King spoke his words, it united millions and got them moving in one direction. Xi’s slogan, meant to clarify his direction and get all noses pointing the same way, has achieved the opposite effect and has more the look of a fragmentation bomb (which first appeared in the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, an interesting fact I’m sure you didn’t know yet!).

Around the country, new streets and neighborhoods and even complete cities are popping up. Progress and economic development seem the common denominator of the Chinese dreams.  But environmentalists should not complain: local birds are treated with more care than most people. A project in Zhengzhou (Henan) was halted when it became clear that it would harm the eggs of a colony of sand martins, that nested on the site’s slopes. As a caring worker explained: “Sand martins are both good to both human beings and the ecosystem. It’s worthwhile to make the sacrifice, because to protect them is to protect ourselves”. Heart-warming and a dream come true, isn’t it? Many are now waiting for the worker to speak up for the residents across the country who are evicted overnight by the same developers-enforced by bribes, brutal bullying and even shameless murder. Was this their dream? What is their dream? Is it Xi’s dream?

Just as their imperial predecessors, China’s communist leaders communicate in slogans. And their subordinates will integrate it into their speeches, as will the subordinates of the subordinates; often without really understanding it. Each of Mao’s slogans introduced its own nightmares -and there were many of them. The vision of Deng Xiaoping, the Great Helmsman’s successor, was very encouraging: “To get rich is glorious”, until he specified: “Let some people get rich first”. As it is, his pragmatism knew no limits and it did turn China unto a new path: “It does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice”. In recent years, this has been well applied by illegal DVD burners and fake iPhone and baby-milk manufacturers. The well-known slogan -and still often quoted- “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is also his. Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” became an excuse but nobody knows for what, quite well reflecting this late-president’s views.

And now there is the “Chinese Dream”. Mr. Xi could hardly do without. Rumor has it that he got this idea from, ironically enough, an American journalist: the NYTimes columnist and writer Thomas Friedman. Although no-one knows for sure what this dream is aiming for, it should surely not be mistaken for the American Dream. Rather than focusing on ‘individual’ ‘rights’ of chasing ‘happiness’, Xi is more likely refering to ‘power’ and ‘influence’; ‘respect’ and ‘superiority’, as he was recently  quoted, saying that the “greatest Chinese Dream” was “fulfilling the great renaissance of the Chinese race.” There is then one similarity: it will never apply to all its citizen. Just ask a Tibetan from Lhasa or an American Indian from any reservation or ask an Uighur from Xinjiang or a colored inner-city dweller from LA: their country’s dream can never be theirs.

And while I was wandering the streets on an empty stomach and -with so many others- trying to find the meaning of life without shaokao and the meaning of China’s latest slogan, I wondered why no-one had thought of the obvious: ask Xi Jinping. He would know the meaning of his China Dream… or would he?

3 responses

  1. Pingback: “You’ll never be Chinese” by Mark Kitto | China Daily Mail

  2. Progress, progress, progress, but sometimes that dream is falling apart. Even in China.

    July 15, 2013 at 5:17 pm

  3. I just found this blog post of yours.

    I came across some advertisements that well, “advertised” the China dream. I posted them on Facebook (you can check them out here: I do think it gives us a clue what Xi Jingping has in mind when he’s talking about the China dream, but of course, a dream itself is still something very abstract.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:57 am