China now has an evangelist of "dreams"--none other than Xi Jinping, who was formally anointed as president in mid-March.
Xi repeated the words "Chinese dream" nine times in a speech and advanced the cause of patriotism and national unity during a closing ceremony of the annual session of the National People's Congress.
"Chinese dream" rhymes with "American dream," although we don't hear very often about a "Japanese dream" or a "European dream." In fact, what other country name, apart from America and China, could embody the word "dream"? Perhaps G-2 (America and China), or "D-2" (Dream-2). But somehow, the pair don't resonate together.
"What's your dream?" China's state-run media are asking day in and day out in their feature articles and programs, catering to the wishes of their new boss.
The evangelism doesn't appear to stop short of national borders.
Addressing a gallery of students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Xi, during his first overseas trip as president, on March 23 related how he, as a young man, read the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and other masters of Russian literature.
"The Chinese dream that we have to realize not only makes the Chinese people happy, but also makes the people of all countries happy," he told the students.
Xi subsequently visited Africa and delivered a speech on March 25 at an international convention center, built with Chinese aid, in Tanzania.
"Chinese people are currently committed to realizing the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, while African people are striving for the African dream of self-development through unity and growth," he said. "People in China and Africa should ... help each other to make their respective dreams come true."
Word of the Chinese dream will certainly continue to spread around the world. Despite the enthusiasm shown by state-run media, however, few of my Chinese acquaintances appeared particularly inspired.
Most of them--young and old, men and women, from intellectuals to farmers in inland areas--simply shrugged off the idea as being too abstract and vaguely defined.
"That's none of my business," they typically added.
One woman in her 30s in a farming village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region suffers from the aftereffects of a contraceptive operation forced on her under the nation's one-child policy.
"Everyone's dream is different," she told me over the phone. "It's not something to be defined by the government."
She went on to observe: "Perhaps they call it a 'dream' because they know it will never come true. A policy that will come true is called a 'plan.' "
The woman has visited government offices many times to ask them to pay for her operation and drug expenses. She has been blacklisted by the local authorities, who watch her whenever she leaves her home.
"My 'dream' is to have my body restored to what it was before, have environmental pollution problems in nearby areas be taken care of and see no more toxic food be put on sale," she said.
Another woman in her 40s suffers from heavy metal poisoning in Hunan province. Her symptoms are similar to those of the "itai-itai" (ouch-ouch) disease that afflicted residents due to mining in Toyama Prefecture, in a major outbreak of cadmium poisoning cases in Japan in the 1960s.
She said her dream was to "see something done about the cadmium contamination near where I live."
A chemical plant in her village was shut down following deaths related to cadmium poisoning, but pollutants have been left untreated and spill out when it rains, the woman said.
She said she feels acute pain in her joints, in addition to experiencing headaches and having difficulty in breathing--and is spending more and more time in bed. Similar symptoms emerged anew in three of her fellow villagers last year, she added.
The woman was detained by local police after attempting to make a direct plea to former Premier Wen Jiabao. But she said that will not discourage her from trying to make more pleas to the new government administration.
"Those higher up (in the central government) may voice some beautiful sentiments (about helping people who are suffering from heavy metal poisoning), but those under them (in local governments) are not up to the job," she said. "Local police went so far as to detain a reporter who had come from Beijing to cover the news."
One of my acquaintances, a Beijing intellectual, was equally somber.
"A new government does come up with new slogans," he said. "Don't take them seriously."
The man defined the "American dream" as one in which "everybody in the world is given free and fair opportunities to realize a dream through efforts," adding that nothing of the kind exists in China.
One Internet posting said: "An online search implies the Chinese are dreaming of eating safe food, breathing fresh air and enjoying fairness. Those things are probably available in the United States. Oh, the 'Chinese dream' was a byword for the United States."
Another online poster asked: "What's all this crap about the 'Chinese dream' at a time when senior officials are so eager to move their assets overseas?"
Xi's talk of the Chinese dream is paired with talk of national rejuvenation. The first publicly announced collective "study" tour by the new leadership corps of the Communist Party of China, after Xi was anointed as its Central Committee general secretary in November, was a tour to "The Road of Rejuvenation," a permanent exhibition in the National Museum of China next to Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
With that in mind, I went to see the displays in late March for the first time in a long while.
The displays largely consist of five parts: (1) Before the beginning of a "history of humiliation" with the Opium War of 1840; (2) Invasion of imperialist powers; (3) Struggles by an awakened people; (4) The building of the new China; and (5) After the reform and open-door policy was started under Deng Xiaoping's leadership. Japan is mostly mentioned in the third stage.
The exhibition also enumerates 41 unequal treaties imposed on China. Britain and Russia top the list with 11 treaties each, followed by Japan and France with six each. Also on display is a photo of a U.S. serviceman seated in an imperial throne in the Forbidden City.
"The invasion of imperialist powers shattered China's dream of learning from the West," is written in a commentary on the display.
One of the apparent main objectives of the displays is to impress upon viewers that the Chinese Communist Party freed its people from a history of humiliation. I have no idea if visitors do feel a debt of gratitude to the Communist Party as planned, but a tour of the entire exhibition left me with the lingering impression, "Lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks," a catchphrase on a display there, which Xi quotes from time to time.
The Chinese dream refers to a "national rejuvenation" and a "powerful China," which lie along the extension of that history. As a citizen of neighboring Japan, I am naturally curious to know what those goals specifically mean at a time when China is pursuing the dual path of economic growth and a military buildup.
Kenichiro Sasae, ambassador of Japan to the United States, also raised the same questions that I do. During an address on March 22 at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, he said, "We certainly hope that China will peacefully rise as they say."
A news article in the Chinese media lashed out at Sasae's remarks. With his comments that "malevolently maligned the 'Chinese dream' concept," Sasae was "fanning a 'Chinese threat' theory," so that China should "expose Japan's intentions," the article quoted an expert as saying.
Let me return to the question of what differentiates the world's "D-2." I think the people of China are already in the know, not the least of which are the country's senior officials, who are eager to move their assets overseas and enroll their children in U.S. universities.
The United States is almost always fighting wars somewhere and has large disparities in wealth. Its social security systems are less well developed than in Japan, which boasts of a universal health insurance system.
Despite all that, immigrants continue to arrive there from across the world, dreaming of an opportunity to join the "American dream" and to make the effort. They have a broad array of opportunities to chase their dreams, including entrepreneurship, music, academic research and sports.
The notion that freedom, equality and fairness of opportunity are shared is a source of "soft power" of the United States.
By contrast, how many people in today's world would want to join the Chinese dream, which has outgrown the realm of making money in a gigantic market and now openly espouses the causes of a wealthy and powerful nation?
The special New Year edition of the Southern Weekly, a Chinese newspaper, was prepared to print a headline: "Dream of China, dream of constitutional rule." Censors ordered that phrase rewritten to "We are closer to our dream than at any other time."
It is all too natural that some see a threat in a more powerful China, as long as its leaders use their power to clamp down on domestic speech and on the socially vulnerable. Domestic reform certainly holds a key to the success of Xi's global evangelism of "dreams."
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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