Image: A bridge under construction in Chongqing, China. For some time now, China has been a world leader in infrastructure investment. It sometimes uses infrastructure spending to hedge against economic downturns.
By Tong Lam
Since 2013, the Chinese government has been promoting the idea of the “Chinese Dream.” While the specific meanings of the dream remain vague, the official propaganda has repeatedly emphasized that a central part of it is a yearning for national rejuvenation. This narrative of national revival not only builds on persistent sentiments of victimhood and pride; it also highlights the role of the Communist Party in leading the country out of a “Century of Humiliation” said to have begun with the Opium War (1839–1842) and returning it to the status of a great power.
Although the phrase seems to draw inspiration from the American Dream, the Chinese Dream’s focal point is less a concern with individual rights, liberty, or even upward mobility than the collective ambitions of the nation. Historically, such prioritization of national over individual aspirations has been common in countries that seeking to challenge Western imperialist powers. In Meiji Japan (1868–1912), political leaders similarly placed great emphasis on national solidarity as the basis of Japan’s modernizing initiatives. In twentieth-century China, episodes of political campaigns and mobilizations, such as the national reconstruction in the 1920s and 1930s under the Nationalists and the various modernization programs of the second half of the twentieth century, similarly underscored this imperative.
In spite of its diverse meanings, the Chinese Dream seems to manifest itself particularly visibly in a certain version of urban modernity: one that celebrates spectacular skylines and state-of-the-art infrastructure. Edited out of the dreamscape are things like pollution, urban slums, and various effects of overdevelopment. Without looking closely at the nightmarish consequences of a ramped-up growth model, the Chinese Dream certainly appears compelling. In a recent visit to Bangalore, India, for instance, I was struck by the extent to which the Chinese model of development has gained currency in everyday conversations. For India, where basic infrastructures from rail to water are still far from adequate, the perceived spectacular infrastructural development of China has become a source of envy and admiration. Some of my Indian friends, though very critical of this form of authoritarian neoliberalism, nonetheless admit that many middle-class Indians are already dreaming their version of the Chinese Dream. One Indian journalist even said to me that India should perhaps suspend its democracy first in order to achieve high-speed economic growth. Once India became developed, he pondered aloud, then it could return to democracy. He quickly acknowledged the paradox, adding that India might then never again have democracy.
Ambivalence aside, many elites in developing countries that are in dire need of rapid infrastructural development find the developmental model of emphasizing economic and political efficiency at the expense of equity, justice, and long-term sustainability attractive. In the end, even though the Chinese model cannot be adapted easily to local circumstances, it does keep many dreamers feeling seduced and dizzy, especially when the need to emerge from the rubble left behind by colonialism and imperialism becomes more pressing than ever.