The China Dream: In English

At 8:05 a.m., a smartly dressed university student wearing a black pantsuit strolls across the stage, nervously adjusts her microphone and starts to speak. On the other side of the nation Xi Jinping has just been sworn in as head of the Communist Party at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Pundits will analyze his brief speech looking for clues about the country’s future direction. For my money, anyone wanting to find out where China is headed would be better off doing their listening here, at the Sichuan regional finals of China’s university-wide English public speaking contest (英语演讲大赛).

If Xi was tight-lipped, these forty-three provincial level Chinese college students promise to be extremely generous with their language. After a two-minute speech on the contest’s theme, “what we cannot afford to lose,” they will offer an impromptu discourse on a randomly chosen topic and then respond to questions.  In a country where youth have shaped history from the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square, the forum presents a unique opportunity to gain insight into the mind of China’s up-and-coming generation.

What We Can’t Afford to Lose

To those unfamiliar with the Chinese obsession with learning English, the idea of a university wide contest in offering speeches in a second language might seem bizarre. Isn’t it hard enough to speak Chinese? In fact, English is part of the Chinese educational curriculum starting in elementary school, and a section of the national college entrance examination is devoted to an evaluation of English skills.

With more Chinese than ever applying to American universities, English ability is becoming crucial for the Chinese version of success. The result is that while China may be responsible for aiding and abetting America in running up its national debt, it is also doing its part in helping our country reduce its unemployment rate by hiring an army of foreigners with seemingly few other qualifications than being born in an English speaking country. At least that explains what I’m doing here as one of the two “foreign experts” on the panel of eight tasked with scoring the contest and determining the three students who will advance to the finals in Beijing.

But back to the show.

English speaker

After a shaky start, our first contestant, Wang Min, confidently informs the audience that what they cannot afford to lose is traditional Chinese culture. In a sense, “traditional Chinese culture” functions in a way similar to Christianity in America, serving as the ultimate ethical ground for the society, but without Church on Sunday.  Since it has been around a lot longer than Christianity, traditional Chinese culture is arguably even more rooted in its society than Christianity is in ours—if such a thing is possible. And it is something of which the Chinese are invariably proud. Indeed, if you have not been heard the phrase “5,000 years of Chinese culture” within a day after your landing, you may be in the wrong country.

It was a sentiment Xi shared in his opening speech:

“Our nation is a great nation. In our 5,000 years of civilization, the Chinese people have made indispensable contributions to human development.”

But if traditional Chinese culture has endured this long, why express a concern for its preservation?  To draw again on the parallel with Christianity in America, no one except the paranoids at Fox News seriously believes that Christianity is threatened. By contrast, the Chinese government is certainly providing more than a few clues that it feels like traditional values are under attack. The move by the government a few years ago to shorten the holiday associated with Communism (May Day) and reinsert two more ancient holidays (Tomb Sweeping Day and mid-Autumn festival) was generally perceived as a sign of the desire to emphasize tradition.

Mid-Autumn in Chengdu

Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival in Chengdu

As part of this process, Confucius himself has come back into vogue after an era of disrepute under Mao. Not only has the government established a series of institutes that bear his name around the world meant to teach Chinese language and educate about Chinese culture; it has as well backed a movie purporting to show the life of Confucius and even went so far as to recently install a 31-foot statue of the ancient sage just across the road from Mao’s portrait. Granted, the statue mysteriously disappeared a short time later, but there is no evidence the interest in Confucius or tradition is a passing fad.

English and the China Dream

The reason for this concern about traditional values in China was a big part both of Xi Jinping’s speech and of the contest.  In his speech, Xi had said that

“Our Party is confronted with many severe challenges. There are many pressing problems within the Party that needs to be resolved urgently, especially the graft and corruption cases that occurred to some of the Party members and cadres.”

Indeed, with China recently falling from 80 to 75 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, tying it with such luminaries as Serbia and Trinidad and Tobago, not even the Party is debating whether corruption is a problem in China.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Although Xi failed to name any names in his speech, the students were not so reluctant to indict particular entities within the culture. No less than a half dozen of the speeches either directly or indirectly mentioned the slew of food scandal problems that have rocked China in recent years. The most notorious of these involved melamine, an industrial chemical used in making plastics that was added to infant formula in order to artificially drive up the protein content. By the time this was discovered, at least six infants died and as many as 300,000 were sickened.

More recently the practice of restaurants reclaiming and reusing oil that has already been dumped as waste—otherwise known as the sewer oil scandal—has been in the news. Add to this the whole exploding watermelon phenomenon, the aluminum dumplings, and the glow-in-the-dark pork and we can begin to talk about a trend. Indeed, a new food scandal seems to appear almost daily in China. Earlier this year a website that catalogued Chinese food scandals, throwitoutthewindow.com, crashed because of its popularity.

Dressed in jeans, a white shirt and black tie one of the few male contestants starts his speech by asking the audience “Did you drink a glass of milk this morning?” After most of the audience raises their hands he follows up. “How many of you are confident about that milk?” No hands shoot up. Corruption in the food industry is only one part of the multi-colored tapestry that constitutes traditional Chinese business practices. Last year it was Guo Meimei, a young woman who posted pictures of her very elaborate lifestyle financed, she declared, by an official in the Red Cross of China. Indeed, not long after Xi’s speech, an official was arrested when a five-year-old video of him having sex with a teenage girl in exchange for approval of a construction contract surfaced online.

Why Does Love Decrease as Economy Increases?

In the aftermath of his speech, Xi seems poised to make the fight against corruption a central focus of his tenure, emphasizing the topic in additional public addresses as well as offering symbolic gestures and making some high profile arrests. The message is clear that the law against corruption will be more strictly enforced and those guilty will pay the price. The students, however, suggest a different strategy. Unlike Xi, the students explicitly tie the corruption to a larger breakdown in traditional values in the society, for in conjunction with the melamine scandal several of the speeches discuss another recent, notorious incident.

Last spring, a two-year old girl, Yueyue, was run over twice by cars and lay dying in the street while dozens of pedestrians, bikes and automobiles drove by. At least for a few days a country paused and asked of itself the same question a small girl with a plaid skirt and wire-rimmed glasses posed to the audience today: “Why does a people’s love gradually decrease while their social and economic level increases?”

In speeches declaring that what the country can’t afford to lose is variously dubbed trust, responsibility or love, these college students announce that the problem is not a legal but a moral one. Of course, the suggestion that stricter enforcement of the law is a hopeless way to impose moral order is stated in the Tao Te Ching: “The more rules and regulations,” warns Lao Tzu, “the more thieves and robbers.” Indeed, this ancient truth received recent verification, for despite the death sentence meted out to those in charge, more tainted milk has since found its way into the marketplace.

The reality is that in going after a few cases of corruption Xi is behaving like the physician whose strategy for treating cancer consists solely in removing the lump from the breast. If he listens to these students, he will understand that a much more sweeping reform is necessary to eradicate such morally egregious behavior.

Given the history of widespread social reforms in China, however, I am actually a bit relieved he is on the other side of the country.

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About Peter Vernezze

Peter Vernezze came to Chengdu in 2006 and is an educational consultant, philosophical counselor and academic. Peter is the author of "Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the Chinese Way."

20 Responses to “The China Dream: In English”

  1. Great post, Peter. The “China Dream” is something that has really risen to the top of the Chinese consciousness, it seems: I can hardly go a day without seeing or hearing this phrase. Anyone else notice it written on the scrolling electronic displays on top of taxis in Chengdu?

    The video embedded in this post of the English speaking contest is really impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in China who speaks English that well.

    What Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching is right: it often feels like we’re living in a society with an abundance of rules but a dearth of order.

  2. I love your post, Peter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. :)

  3. What is the China Dream? I still can not figure it out after 20 years of life in China. More and more Chinese people are getting smarter, and articles written by foreigners always provide new views for them.

    Thank you for your ideas. They are really filled with inspiration.

    • I think very few people have a clear idea of what the “China Dream” actually is. We’re recording a podcast this week and one of the topics that we’ve been discussing is the China Dream, which we’ve been thinking more about since this post was published.

      While talking about the China Dream, a Chinese girl nearby asked what we were talking about, and we told her. Her response was “The China Dream? What is that, to go to America?”

    • Martin Luther King, Jr. had an American Dream: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

      Where is the American Dream?

      To pay for an old house made of wood and watch its value go down by half…

      To raise your kids so they can leave your home and forget about you when you’re old…

      To work all day and come home to watch mindless entertainment, 7×365 days a year…

      To pay your taxes so the rich and powerful can evade their taxes…

      To retire and watch your life savings, Social Security, pension fund and other promised benefits go up in smoke…

      Is that the American Dream?

      • The American dream is that you can come to America and be successful no matter what your background is. The dream isn’t about making everyone successful (that’s impossible), but making the opportunity for success available to everyone.

  4. great post, love how you weave the Xi JInping speech and the University contest together to tell the story of the “China Dream” that everyone is talking about but no one can define …

  5. I think that it is rational to take the phrase ‘China dream’ with a rice cooker full of skepticism, but I do think that the inclusion of the word dream frames a national goal in way that is a-typically flexible with regard to the possible inclusion of individual citizens’ imagination of it.

  6. I thought the China dream was “Steal all you can while screwing over as many people as possible and get out before you get caught and screwed over yourself?” Wen Jiabao made it! Bo Xilai did not.

  7. my dream ?
    getting a higher pay in my work…
    having sex with that pretty…
    ———————-
    Oh,no! that’s not a dream, that’s just goals.
    A dream means something that’s hard or even impossible to come true. so…
    chinese are the happiest in the world now and china will be the stongest country in the world in recent future…
    I will become the world leader commanding hujintao and obama…
    ———————–
    A dream is just a dream, it’s almost meaningless compare to my goals in my opnion. Just stay hungry, stay foolish, try to live a simple life WITHOUT DREAM.

    • The recent future was my dream too. Then it passed.

      My dream is not to hear this:
      “Our Party is confronted with many severe challenges. There are many pressing problems within the Party that needs to be resolved urgently, especially the graft and corruption cases that occurred to some of the Party members and cadres.” From unelected dictators. Does some = all, because if it does, then emperor Xi might actually be telling the truth.

      If you believe this:
      “Of course, the suggestion that stricter enforcement of the law is a hopeless way to impose moral order is stated in the Tao Te Ching: “The more rules and regulations,” warns Lao Tzu, “the more thieves and robbers.” Indeed, this ancient truth received recent verification, for despite the death sentence meted out to those in charge, more tainted milk has since found its way into the marketplace.”

      Then you’ve been in China too long. The paragraph is actually quite misleading as it starts by talking about stricter enforcement and then uses an excerpt by Lao Tzu that has nothing to do with enforcement.

      Stricter enforcement of the law is not “hopeless”, it’s the only way ahead. What Lao Tzu was saying was that lots of rules don’t work unless they are enforced. Right now, and since time immortal, the lack of “enforcement” of rules has been one of the causes of China’s repeated downfalls. (The other being, the inability to think of something new.)

      Before enforcement can cure China of its backwardness and inhumanity, the rule of law has to be established where all citizens regardless of stature or Party affiliation are subject to the law. Right now there is “rule by law” where those with power wield the law as a weapon against less powerful enemies as was the case with Bo Xilai. Wen Jiabao had more power, so the rules were enforced by him against Bo. If China had “rule of law”, wen would have been on trial before Bo was ever even heard of.

      As for Xi “going after corruption”, that is precisely what he is not doing. Since Jiang Zamen, the current Party godfather was appointed by Deng, China has had a so-called war on corruption. Hu Jintao whom Deng also chose, continued on the same path and corruption increased dramatically. So much for proclamations from the rulers… And, if you are a knowledgeable of Chinese law you will know that the power Deng wielded and his appointment of rulers is against Chinese law, just like Jiang’s current exalted all powerful position as the defacto ruler of China.

      And what is Xi really up to. Corruption is not his goal or every Party official in China would be on trial, including judges. No, all Xi is doing is cleaning house. It’s a communist purge. Stalin is smiling in delight down in hell as I write.

      • KalanStar:

        You’re right that systemic graft and endemic corruption is a huge problem for Xi to tackle. So I have to agree with you that “cleaning house” is not enough. What China needs is to “fix the house”. But there’s another problem which is that the residents keep on “thrashing the house” by stealing door knobs, breaking windows, spilling garbage, etc.

        So to “fix the house”, Xi needs a “plan” so workers would know how to repair the house. He also needs a “lesson” so the residents would know how to live in the house according to the “house rules”. The “China Dream” then is like a blueprint or a 3D model of what the China House should look like in the 21st Century.

  8. Traditional Chinese culture was discarded in the mainland the moment the frenzied Maoism of the Cultural Revolution swept in. This fact is, unfortunately, lost on many mainland youths. What is clear to see, however, is that the socialist virtues espoused in the indoctrination that is K-16 education in China have eroded in less than three decades. Today’s China is marked by materialism, corruption, and an enormous and impassable gulf between the wealthy and the poor. In light of the homilies preached against the ills of capitalism, it is not difficult to understand why so much talk about the erosion of “traditional” [read: socialist] Chinese values would be on the lips of its people.

    • Bob,

      I think President Xi Jinping’s China Dream is a national agenda to reclaim China’s historical status as the most advanced Civilization on Earth. You’re right that Mao’s Cultural Revolution tried to sweep away Traditional Chinese Culture which at the time was blamed for Chinese feudalism and replace it with Socialist, i.e., Marxist-Leninist-Maoist values. But after Deng’s opening ushered in three decades of market reforms, must of those Socialist values have all but been lost to what I’d call “Amoral Nihilism” which manifests itself in rampant corruption, systemic graft, conspicuous consumption, sexual hedonism, mindless materialism, etc.

      President Xi Jinping’s answer to China’s dilemma is the Chinese Dream.

  9. Zak

    This girl is a technically exceptional public speaker. Hard to believe this is her second language.

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