Event ReportsPublished on Jan 21, 2014
The distinction between individual aspirations and a national dream is clear to the Chinese government where there are contradictions between the political system and the consumerism-driven economy, according to US university professor Dr. Tansen Sen.
2013 could be beginning of watershed moment in China's history

The ’China Dream’ is part of the new Chinese leadership’s attempt to find a balance between reforms, social changes and corruption that took place in frenzied pace since 1989, according to Dr. Tansen Sen, Associate Professor of Asian History, Baruch College, City University New York, USA.

Delivering a lecture on ’China After Thirty Years: Reflections on a Changing Society’ at the ORF Kolkata Chapter on 21 January, Dr. Sen said the idea of ’China Dream’ could have occurred to President Xi Jinping from the 2008 Beijing Olympics for which he was in charge of preparations. The motto of Beijing Olympics, ’One World, One Dream, ’may have helped shape Xi’s idea of the ’One China Dream’ which is also being referred to as the ’Chinese Dream.’

The distinction between individual aspirations and a national dream is clear to the Chinese government where there are contradictions between the political system and the consumerism-driven economy, Dr. Sen added. He said that the Third Plenum tries to come to terms with such contradictions between the government and the society at large. During this phase, Dr. Sen said, there does not seem to have been a clear direction guiding reforms and policies to address the needs of a changing society. These seem to be the main goals under President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Dr. Sen said that the year 2013 could be the beginning of a watershed moment in China’s contemporary history.

One of the important developments in the past year or so in China, according to Dr. Sen, has been the way in which the Chinese are reflecting and expressing their views on the recent, post-1949, history. People are, for example, beginning to talk about and undertake research on the Cultural Revolution more thoroughly than any time before. In the last 8 to 10 months, several former Red Guards have come out and expressed themselves in public and apologised for the wrongs they committed during the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, there are universities and institutions that are conducting research and publishing their outcome. This marks a dramatic change from the 1980s when individual expressions about the Cultural Revolution were restricted and controlled.

He said the emergence of China Dream goes back to the economic reforms, social changes, and political transitions of the 1980s. The catch phrase throughout most of the 1980s, especially after the 12thNational Congress, was ’spiritual pollution,’-- this was the Chinese government attempt to limit "undesirable" influences from the West, both politically and socially. In 1982 when the 12th National Congress took place, China was coming out of the period of Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four was dismantled by this time.And while the need for incorporating the former Red Guards and some of the supporters of the Cultural Revolution into the nation "re-building" process was recognised, the full account of the violence and sufferings during the period had not been fully attempted until recently. Dr. Sen sees this attempt to reconcile with the recent past and the public acknowledgements of the transgressions and wrongdoings the biggest change in Chinese society during his thirty years of experience with China.

The presence of women in public was one distinct feature of Chinese society observable to anyone from the Indian sub-continent who went to China in the 1980s. Women were seen employed in many service sectors like public-transportation. The government took several steps, both economic and social, to ensure a better status and considerable role of the women in society.

The life of people in China in the early ’80s was much slower compared to the present time. A distinction between urban and rural areas and between people employed in various sectors was not so great. There was, however, a clear distinction between foreigners and Chinese. The Chinese were not allowed to enter five star hotels, possess foreign currency, travel abroad, or encouraged to marry foreigners.

The late ’80s, especially between 1986 and 1989, were times of significant social changes and political uncertainties. In 1986, Hu Yaobang, the Secretary General of CPC resigned after student demonstrations in parts of China called for further political and economic reforms. Even though the government insisted that it was building "socialism with Chinese characteristics, "a vocal minority, led primarily by Fang Lizhi, started questioning whether there was a need for Marxist dogma in China. Many others were weary of pervasive corruption. Added to this mix was the aspiration of the young Chinese to travel to the United States for higher education and the gradual expansion of materialistic needs. All these culminated into the Tiananmen Square protests and the government crackdown of June 4th, 1989. Unlike the ongoing reconciliation with the Cultural Revolution and the issue of the Red Guards, the Tiananmen Square episode is still a taboo, not open to discussion or critical research in China.

Dr. Sen said after 1989, China has dramatically changed economically and socially; cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu have become leading urban centres of the world, high-speed trains now link various regions of China, and materialistic needs and consumerism drive the society and economy. The challenge for the government now is to formulate a system of governance to manage the needs and aspiration of a transformed society. The idea of "China Dream" and creating a "moderately prosperous society" (Xiaokang) is perhaps intended to achieve this goal.

Prof. Hari Vasudevan, Professor of History and Director, Centre for China Studies, Calcutta University said that the presence of the Communist Party of China (CCP) as an omnipresent force for generations of Chinese people distinguishes China from other countries in Europe or Asia.

The CCP as a way of life, source of morals and a generator of debate amongst generations of Chinese and how it has adapted to changing life, socio-cultural norms and economic necessities is unique, Prof. Vasudevan said.

Prof. Vasudevan observed that there is not one but ’many Chinas’. He said that conflicting notions of China are to be found in the contrasts between life in town and country, SEZ, non-SEZ and proto-SEZ territories, state and private enterprises, and ethnicities and generations among the Chinese.

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