What Is the Chinese Dream?

Forbes: Helen H. Wang

In an event in Silicon Valley, someone asked me: “In one sentence or two, would you tell me what is the Chinese dream?” (as he learned I wrote a book called The Chinese Dream).

A simple question, but no simple answers.

When I left China 20 years ago, there was no Chinese dream. I had to leave my country and come to America to pursue my dream of a better future. But today, many young people in China can start their own business and have a lot more opportunities. Even many of my American friends are going to China because of the tremendous opportunities presented there.

As a Chinese magazine editor told me bluntly, “The Chinese Dream is a copy of the American Dream.”

Many middle class Chinese are influenced by the American way of life. They are bombarded by many material temptations and proliferating choices. TV commercials, the Internet, and Hollywood movies give them a rosy picture of the American middle class.

One Chinese blog described it this way: “American middle class people live in a villa with a two-car garage in the suburbs. In front of the house, there is a green lawn. They have 2-3 children, and a dog. The husband goes out to work, and the wife stays at home taking care of the children. On weekends, they drive their SUVs to the countryside for barbecues and camping.”

That is the picture in most Chinese people’s minds of “the American Dream”— owning a big house, driving a nice car, and having a comfortable life. The Chinese middle class wants it all.

In my book The Chinese Dream, I discuss a wide variety of topics related to a rising Chinese middle class and explore the implications in economics, the environment, culture, and politics. For people who do not have time to read the book, here is a peek:

The Chinese Dream is organized in two parts. Part One, “The Making of the Middle Class,” reviews the dramatic changes over the past fifteen years in China that gave birth to the new breed of Chinese middle class that is still emerging.

The Introduction provides an overview of the Chinese middle class and presents the main theme of the book—that the rise of a large Chinese middle class will be a complementary and balancing force in the global community and benefit the world as a whole.

Chapter 1 explores a topic that mystifies many people in the West: how capitalism and communism, two mutually exclusive systems, can exist side by side in China. Through profiles of a state-created bourgeoisie and a communist entrepreneur who wears Playboy shoes and invests in the capitalist stock market, among others, I show how China’s not-so-private sector operates. In reflecting on this complexity of Chinese society, I discuss the differences between Eastern and Western ways of thinking and how they, although seemingly contradictory, can be complementary to each other.

Chapter 2 looks at the impact of globalization on the urban Chinese middle class, known as “white collars.” Among them are a recruiter who gave up her dream to be a reporter, a gay son of former Red Guards, a blogger who drinks Starbucks coffee and studies American business icons, young entrepreneurs who are becoming increasingly westernized, consuming as fast as the money pours in, and many more. Their stories are a microcosm of modern China, full of the contrast of past and present, the conflict of old and new, and collision of East and West.

Another major factor in the growth of the Chinese middle class is the country’s unprecedented urbanization. Chapter 3 features rural migrants who pulled themselves up out of poverty, examines the reasons for this great migration, and discusses potential obstacles—such as China’s rigid household registration and educational systems—to the Chinese middle class’s ability to move up. In this chapter, I also debunk the myth of China’s manufacturing power and challenge people in the West to see beyond our own immediate interests and view China as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

Part Two, “Complexities and Challenges,” discusses the impact of the Chinese middle class on Chinese society, the United States and the rest of the world, how it will change the dynamics of the planet we live in, and why it can lead to a safer and stronger world.

Chapter 4 explores the economic implications of a large Chinese middle class, both for China and for the world. A burgeoning middle class, calculated to reach 600 to 800 million within the next fifteen years, is jumping aboard the consumerism train and riding it for all it’s worth—a reality that may provide the answer to America’s economic woes. The chapter presents ways Western companies can capitalize on China’s enormous consumer market, and argues that the Chinese middle class will be an alternative growth engine for the global economy. As counterpoint to this argument, I deconstruct the myth of China as a superpower.

Although a large Chinese middle class offers significant benefits for the world economy, it will also pose serious challenges to the environment and global warming. Chapter 5 showcases China‘s widespread pollution and looks at both the challenges and opportunities presented by this environmental crisis—problems that the U. S. can help solve. The chapter discusses both the bottom-up environmental movement in the West and the top-down governmental approach in China and presents a case for mutual learning and collaboration.

Twenty plus years after Tiananmen Square, will a growing Chinese middle class push for more democracy? In Chapter 6, I review China’s troubled history of democratic pursuit and interview a former Tiananmen Square demonstrator, an editor for one of China’s outspoken magazines, and other intellectuals and entrepreneurs. The chapter discusses the relationship between the Chinese middle class and the government, and explores the possibility of a democratic China.

China is leapfrogging into the information age. Chapter 7 tells the story of a Chinese Internet entrepreneur who started an e-commerce company that defeated eBay in China. This chapter documents why some companies fail while others thrive in the Chinese market, and illustrates important lessons that multinationals cannot afford to ignore when seeking to do business in China.

China is experiencing a surge in religious beliefs as the country continues to undergo rapid and profound changes. Chapter 8 recounts stories of people’s search for spirituality and their desire to find meaning in life: a jewelry store saleswoman wavering over believing in God, a public relations manager shopping from religion to religion, an entrepreneur who converted to Christianity but is still in doubt, and others. The chapter delves into the government’s attitude towards religion and the middle class’s quest for balance between material and spiritual enrichment.

The book’s Conclusion asserts that middle class Chinese and Westerners are connected by a common set of core values and share many of the same aspirations and dreams. By accepting our interdependence and seeking to learn from each other, we will all benefit. The Chinese middle class is an emerging global force that can serve as a catalyst for a more balanced world for all.

Interspersed throughout are my personal stories and life-changing experiences—my childhood in China, my arrival in the United States, and my visits back to China over the years.

If you have a better definition of the Chinese Dream, please let me know.

(Helen Wang is the author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You. Available on Amazon and http://TheChineseDreamBook.com)

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