China’s Twenty Dreams

In A Stretch of the Imagination, an oration written for the Australian Centre on China in the World published recently in book form, a former ambassador to China Dr Stephen FitzGerald speaks of how the debate about Australia’s engagement with Asia that started in the 1960s, one that was frequently lead by nationally prominent figures, was ‘put to sleep’ by government fiat under conservative political leadership early this century. Steve says, ‘But if Howard [the Liberal government leader of the country from 1996-2007] vacated the leadership of ideas and put the debate to sleep, his successors didn’t stir it from its slumber.’

In China today, while there seems little time for sleep as the country continues its drive for hyper-development, political leaders, thinkers, writers and citizens have given themselves over to many beguiling dreams. Indeed, dreams have been a feature of the country’s imaginative and cultural landscape for millennia. After all, the dream is the leit-motif of The Story of the Stone 石头记, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦, China’s most famous, and abidingly influential, novel. It was a work that beguiled Mao Zedong (he claimed he had read the voluminous novel five times) and one that was used to launch the first major purge of intellectual life, and to spearhead a campaign against liberal humanism in democracy in early 1950s China.

In recent times the ‘dream’ 梦 has been used metaphorically in discussions of the country’s re-emergence as a major power, and to describe contemporary party-state-led national aspirations. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, were celebrated as realising a century-old dream, while the newly appointed Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has spoken of China’s dream for the twenty-first century, one that relates to the ‘revitalisation of the Chinese nation’. Commentators have made much of Xi’s remarks, although slogans urging national revival such as Zhenxing Zhonghua 振兴中华 have been an integral part of the official landscape since the early 1980s. It was a formulation that featured in 1894 when the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen founded the Revive China Society 興中會 in Hawaii (as well as featuring prominently in such Republican-era movements as the 1934 New Life Campaign). While the Party authorities are trying to articulate a consensual vision for China in terms of a ‘national dream’, since the first days of this year, writers and thinkers have been recalling the long-cherished dreams for constitutional government 宪政, greater freedom, and the rule of law repeatedly quashed by political fiat since the 1910s.

China’s dreams in recent years have, as so often is the case in a culture that readily looks to the past to articulate its future (after all, the notion of achieving a ‘moderately prosperous society’ 小康社会 draws from an ancient classical text) those dreams are also couched in the language of revivalism, continuity with past glories and the realisation of long-held hopes. As William Callahan points out in his new book, China Dreams: 20 visions of the future, the concept that China has entered a new ‘Prosperous Age’ or Shengshi 盛世 is one that links the party-state enterprise of twenty-first century China with the high-Qing period of dynastic prosperity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The notion of a new Shengshi is a topic discussed at length by historians in a dedicated issue of China Heritage Quarterly (June 2011), one of our other publications, and I would recommend their work to readers of this timely new book.

Callahan’s China Dreams is an important survey of China’s various dreamscapes. We are delighted to be able to preview a section of this work as it adds to our concerns with Thinking China, a feature of The China Story Project. Previously, we have introduced readers to Mark Leonard’s work, China 3.0, and we look forward to alerting readers to similar works, in English and Chinese, in the future.

The following excerpt reproduced from the introduction to China Dreams with the kind permission of the author, offers an overview of the book, and we include the Table of Contents to provide readers a glimpse of this lucid account of twenty visions for China’s future.

China Dreams will be published in April 2013.—Geremie R. Barmé


The Future Returns to China

Why should we study China’s futures? Or the China dream? Predictions of China’s economic growth, for example, have consistently been wrong, grossly underestimating the rate of change. Perhaps the only accurate prediction we can make is that futurologists’ forecasts will be wrong. But as futures studies pioneer Jim Dator tells us, “any useful statement about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”[i]

In spite of the problems inherent in forecasting, many Chinese intellectuals have caught the futurology bug. The past five years have seen  an explosion of futures studies activity among officials, scholars, and citizen intellectuals. In 2010–2011 much discussion took place in public space about the party-state’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015). In addition, scholars and citizen intellectuals have published dozens of consciously futuristic studies: China’s Future; China: Moving Towards 2015; China in 2020; 2025: The China Dream; 2030 China: Towards Common Prosperity; China: 30 Years in the Future; 2049: Believe in China; and China Shock.[ii]

It is important to study the future not because the various forecasts are necessarily “true.” Chinese futurology is important for political rather than epistemological reasons: The emergence in the PRC of new ways of thinking about the future is part of the shift in normative power from the West to the East. Futures studies thus is important not because it is true, but because it is new in China. As in American and European futures studies, knowledge and power are interlinked in Chinese futurology, where the objective is not just to know the future, but also to control it.[iii] These futuristic plans and dreams are important because they can tell us how Chinese people relate to their past, present, and future as well as how they interact with people in other countries in the present.

You can get a sense of the energy of Chinese futurology by reading books by outsiders; John and Doris Naisbitt’s China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society (2010) is part of this optimistic trend when the authors proclaim that “China in 2009 was creating an entirely new social and economic system—and a political model, which may well prove that ‘the end of history’ was just another pause along history’s path.”[iv] The Naisbitts came to these conclusions in a novel way: in 2007, they founded the Naisbitt China Institute in Tianjin as an independent think tank to conduct their research. While Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World was translated from English into Chinese, in 2009 the Naisbitts published China’s Megatrends in Chinese—and only later in English.

Although the content of China’s Megatrends is of minimal value—it does little more than reproduce Beijing’s official propaganda slogans—the process of its research and publication shows two significant trends in Chinese futurology: (1) a shift from locating the future outside China (by figuring China as backward and the West as advanced) to see China itself as the future, and (2) a shift from officials centrally planning the future (through the party-state’s Five-Year economic development plans) to having many different people dreaming about many different futures. Thus, the battle for the future is not necessarily waged only between China and the West (as we are incessantly told), but also takes place within the PRC itself among different groups of Chinese intellectuals.

In the 20th century, the future was located outside of China. The country was weak after suffering imperial encroachments from the West and Japan as the Qing dynasty slowly died out at the turn of the 20th century, in what Chinese call their “Century of National Humiliation.”[v] Many intellectuals lost faith in China’s traditional way of organizing economics, politics, and society. After China’s republican revolution unseated two millennia of imperial rule in 1911, activists and intellectuals looked abroad for modernity. The “New Culture Movement” (1915–1922) consciously imported the exotic Western entities “Science” and “Democracy” to cure the ills of China’s “backward” traditional culture. After the communist revolution in 1949, New China was more advanced than imperial or republican China; but Mao Zedong still famously predicted that “the Soviet Union’s today will be China’s tomorrow.” During the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), China presented itself to the globe as a revolutionary model of the future—but the tragic results of these mass movements underlined the PRC’s failure to embody the future for itself, let alone for the rest of the world. With Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policy (1978), the West—and especially the American dream of consumer prosperity—became China’s model for the future. For the children of China’s “post-1980 generation,” who were born under the one-child policy, the China dream is not only to pursue the American dream in China. As a Chinese teenager in the northeastern city of Dalian declared, “it’s my dream to live in a nice suburb in America!”[vi]

Many Chinese analysts likewise take America as the standard of modernity, development, and the future; as historian Arthur Waldron writes: “If one were to name a single metric by which the Chinese government judges itself, it would be the United States.”[vii] As we will see, the main goal of many Chinese futurologists is less to achieve a utopian society than it is simply to surpass the United States economically, militarily, and politically. Futurology in China is seen as a Western practice: a survey of Chinese newspaper and academic articles shows that the term “futurologist” (weilai xuezhe) is characteristically modified as “American futurologist” or “Western futurologist.” Joe Studwell’s book The China Dream and James Mann’s book The China Fantasy are not about Chinese people’s dreams, but about Western dreams of China as a vast untapped economic market or as the next liberal democracy.[viii] Discussing the Asia-Pacific Century in the 1990s, historian Alexander Woodside noted how Chinese intellectuals treated American futurologists Alvin Toffler (author of The Third Wave [1980]) and John Naisbitt (whose Megatrends was published in 1982) as “oracles.” Yet, Woodside wondered at the lack of native Chinese futurologists.[ix] Naisbitt’s recent experience confirms this: in 1996, he told President Jiang Zemin that “Taiwan has a small story to tell, and tells it very well. China has a big story to tell, and does a terrible job in telling it.” To which Jiang replied: “Why don’t you tell it? We will give you all the support you need.”[x] The result, of course, was China’s Megatrends.

Toffler, Naisbitt, and a host of other Western futurologists continue to shape Chinese ideas about the future. According to this dominant view of modernization and progress, both the future and futurology are located outside China.

But things are changing. At the end of his glowing assessment of China’s Megatrends, a Chinese reviewer suggests that it is time for China to tell its own story: “Chinese have the ability to create a great story, Chinese also definitely are able to learn how to tell our own story, allowing China’s story to spread to the world, to emotionally move the world.”[xi]

To many in the PRC, the West is no longer the future: as we saw with the dozens of books with titles such as China: 30 Years in the Future, China itself is now the future. This shift is confirmed by the appearance over the past few years of arguments for the “China Dream,” the “China Model,” and the various “Chinese Schools” of social science (e.g., the Chinese school of international relations theory).[xii] Most of these new futurologists see China as an alternative to the universals of Western modernity. Rather than taking “the outside” as the measure of China’s development status, such books directly criticize what they call the Soviet model and the American model to avoid either repeating the shocking collapse of the Soviet Union or falling into the “booby-trap” of Westernization. They argue that because of China’s unique history and civilization, it needs to tread its own developmental road; otherwise, it is on the “road to suicide,” just like the former Soviet Union.[xiii]

China Dreams
Table of Contents
List of Figures
Introduction: China is the Future
Chapter 1: Officials, Dissidents, and Citizen Intellectuals
Chapter 2: Strategic Futures and the Post-American World Order
Chapter 3: The China Model and the Search for Wealth and Power
Chapter 4: Cosmopolitan, Fundamentalist, and Racialist Dreams
Chapter 5: Shanghai’s Alternative Futures and China’s New Civil Society
Chapter 6: The American Dream and Chinese Exceptionalism
Scenario: A Chimerican Dream
Who’s Who

Curiously, many of these Chinese futurologists look to the past to explain their objectives. “Confucian futures studies” should be an oxymoron since the classics gaze back to an ancient golden age rather than to a future utopia. Yet, noted scholars are now looking to the past to plan China’s future and the world’s future, combing ancient texts for ideas to guide the Chinese century: Under-Heaven (tianxia), Great Harmony (datong), and the Kingly Way (wangdao). China’s current rise to global power, they tell us, is not without precedent; it is actually the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to its “natural place” at the center of the world.[xiv]

Beijing is also starting to export futures. Either because China is big (with one-fifth of the world’s population) or because it is good (China can make great contributions to human civilization), many Chinese authors assert that their country’s future is the world’s future: “China and other countries all need to focus on this question: what does China’s future development mean for world order?”[xv] In its conclusion, 2049: Believe in China confidently answers this question: “not far in the future the world will accept China’s model … a model that surpasses its potential” to make China a country “as rich as America, but one that loves peace and social harmony more, and is capable of lasting a long time.”[xvi]

While it is common for pundits in China and the West to proclaim that the American dream has been replaced by the Chinese dream, we will see how even China’s nativists are still fascinated by America. U.S.-China relations now constitutes the most important bilateral relationship in global politics and economics. This dynamic, which British historian Niall Ferguson and German economist Moritz Schularik call “Chimerica,” is more than an economic relationship that  binds together the PRC as producer and the United States as consumer;[xvii] it also points to the transnational connections between American people and Chinese people, if not the governments in Beijing and Washington.

Actually, most of the citizen intellectuals considered in this book have had an international experience that includes studying, living, and working in the United States. For some, it led them to formulate more complex views of China’s relation to the world; for others, it hardened their belief in a zero-sum notion of “China versus the West.” For both groups, living abroad was an important experience that shaped their views. Thus, this book will consider U.S.-China relations in a different way by exploring how the China dream is interwoven with the American dream.

The absence of Japan in China’s discussions of its future direction is both odd and understandable. Over the past century China has sent many students to study in the West; but it has sent many more to study in Japan. Japan served as an attractive model in the early 20th century because it was the first Asian country to master modernity through economic and social reforms. Japan became a model again in the 1980s when its developmental state model of economic organization challenged America’s laissez-faire capitalism. The current hype about China as the next superpower also resembles the combination of fascination and fear that characterized Western reactions to Japan’s rise as an economic superpower in the 1980s. Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One: Lessons for America could equally have been subtitled “lessons for China” since the PRC used a similar state-capitalist model for its own economic miracle.

But as we will see in chapters 2 and 3, China’s citizen intellectuals go out of their way to stress the irrelevance of Japan’s political and economic experience. There are three reasons for this. First, since memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities continue to shape both official policy and popular perceptions toward Japan, it is culturally and politically difficult for Chinese elites to take Japan as a model. Second, Chinese economists now see Japan as a negative example; they are actually trying to avoid the economic slow-down that characterized Japan’s two lost decades since 1990. The last reason is ideological: as Japan’s experience in the 1980s shows, promoting your country’s unique values is an important part of being the new superpower, and China is no exception to this trend.

Japan thus is rarely mentioned in Chinese futurology; when it is discussed, it is primarily to celebrate how China passed Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second-largest economy. (The European model is largely absent as well, especially since China’s GDP passed Germany’s in 2007.) In this global marathon, Beijing’s objective now is to pass the United States in terms of economic, political, and cultural power. Although the bulk of the book explores what citizen intellectuals have to say about the China dream, we will also consider the important role that “America” plays in Chinese people’s plans for the future.

Chapter 6 will directly compare the meaning of the China dream and the American dream, relating both to American exceptionalism and to Chinese exceptionalism. We can easily summarize the American dream by looking to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, as we will see in chapter 6, the American dream is surprisingly complex, and it has grown out of the tension between freedom for individuals and equality for social groups. While the American dream primarily focuses on the individual advancement of “self-made men,” we will see how the China dream is still taking shape in debates between different citizen intellectuals.

Exceptionalism, for both American and Chinese thinkers, means that their country is not only unique, but also uniquely superior. Each country’s uniquely superior values, then, are so great that they need to be exported to other countries—whether those other countries like it or not. American exceptionalism grows out of the idea that the United States is the world’s first new nation, while Chinese exceptionalism looks to the country’s 5,000 years of continuous history to see China as the world’s first ancient civilization.[xviii] American exceptionalism informs a foreign policy of spreading freedom and democracy around the world—often through military intervention. Chinese exceptionalism looks to China’s uniquely peaceful civilization to unite the globe in a World of Great Harmony that promises order and prosperity, usually as an alternative to liberal democracy.

Although some Chinese people dream of individual freedom, and some Americans dream of collective equality, the trend is clear: The American dream is for individual freedom and the China dream is for national rejuvenation. The book’s concluding scenario, however, seeks to complicate this view of American individuals versus the Chinese nation by charting the partial overlaps and strange crossovers of a particular Chimerican dream.



* The typographical style of the original has been retained.—Ed.

[ii] Jin, Zhongguo de weilai; Hu and Yan, Zhongguo; Hu, China in 2020; Xiang, 2025: Zhongguo meng; Hu, Yan, and Wei, 2030 Zhongguo; Wu, Yu, and Fogel, Zhongguo weilai 30 nian; Bai, 2049; Zhang, Zhongguo zhenhan.

[iii] See Andersson, “The Future Landscape,” 17.

[iv] Naisbitt, China’s Megatrends, xii.

[v] See Callahan, China: The Pessoptimist Nation, 31–59.

[vi] Fong, “Filial Nationalism,” 631.

[vii] Waldron, “The Rise of China,” 728.

[viii] Studwell, The China Dream; Mann, The China Fantasy.

[ix] Woodside, “The Asia-Pacific Idea as a Mobilization Myth,” 41–42.

[x] Naisbitt, China’s Megatrends, x.

[xi] Yang, “Weilai xuejia jiang ‘Zhongguo gushi,’” 110.

[xii] See Liu, Zhongguo meng; Pan, Zhongguo moshi; Qin, “Guoji guanxi lilun Zhongguo pai.”

[xiii] Liu, Zhongguo meng, 88, 292; Pan, “Zhongguo weilai 30 nian,” 62–64.

[xiv] See Callahan and Barabantseva, China Orders the World.

[xv] “Qianyan” in Wu, Zhongguo weilai 30 nian, 1.

[xvi] Bai, 2049, 282.

[xvii] Ferguson and Schularick, “Chimerica and the Global Asset Market Boom.”

[xviii] See Bandurski, “Zhang vs. Yang.”