October 28, 2013
The exhibition “The Road to Revival” (复兴之路) at China’s National Museum in Beijing, which Xi Jinping visited and where he made his first pronouncement on the “China dream” in November 2012 after he became Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, raises as many questions as it answers.
Since Xi Jinping made his pronouncement, the China dream has preoccupied many people. What is the China dream and who does it belong to? These are questions that most people outside China have difficulty in answering. One thing is clear, the dream is the China dream rather than Chinese dream. It is the “zhongguo (中国) dream” rather than the “zhongguoren （中国人） dream”. In this formulation it is a dream of or about the Chinese nation, not a dream of or about Chinese people. This undoubtedly reflects its historical precedents. The main preoccupation of Chinese thinkers of virtually all political persuasions since the 19th century has been the fate of China as a nation, whether the state or the ethnic group, rather than the aspirations of individual Chinese.
This is reflected in “The Road to Revival” exhibition, where the focus is on the road to national revival (the title could equally be translated as renewal or renaissance). The exhibition obviously shows the desire of the Chinese Communist Party to assert its control over the history of China’s revival. Much of the language used to describe the road to revival is a reversion to Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought that most historians in China have abandoned long ago. Nevertheless, many of the details of the exhibition is fascinating, even if, like the China dream itself, its content remains inscrutable to those who do not understand Chinese.
Among the exhibits, one stands out as posing the question, if not the answer, of what the China dream is about, and the key problem China faces on its road to revival even today. A panel prominently displayed in the early part of the exhibition shows a famous quotation from Kang Youwei, an official and proponent of reform in the late 19th century.
“Regarding the trend among all the nations, if they can change (reform) then they will remain whole, if they don’t change then they will perish, if they change everything then they will be strong, if they change little then they will still perish.” (My translation does not do justice to the elegant brevity of the original: 万国之势 能变则全 不变则亡 全变则强 小变仍亡)
The quotation is from a memorial titled “Comprehensive Consideration of the Whole Situation” which Kang presented to the Guangxu Emperor in January 1898. On the face of it, Kang’s implicit advice to the emperor, that only by changing everything can national strength be assured, is the opposite of the basic principles of China’s reform process over the past 30 years, which has been based on cautious gradualism. In reality Kang believed in reform rather than revolution, and considered himself a constitutional monarchist. Following this quotation, Kang calls on the Guangxu Emperor to follow the example of Peter the Great in Russia and the Meiji in Japan. The outcome was not a success. Kang was a main mover behind the Hundred Days Reform in 1898 which conservatives brought to end with the support of Dowager Empress Ci Xi who had Kang condemned to death, a fate he avoided only by escaping to Japan. Some of his fellow reformers were less fortunate.
The problem of change and the survival of China was central in its confrontation with the West in the 19th century. The question Kang poses of reform, the degree to which it must be adopted, and its outcome for the future of China, is as relevant today as it was over a century ago. As Kang implied, the necessity to change is present for all nations, and even the European Union, but it remains key to China continuing on the road to revival, and to the achievement of the China dream, whatever it may mean. Reform and the degree to which it must be adopted have been under constant debate in China since the late 1970s. In the run-up to the 3rd Plenary Session of 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the problem of change, and the degree to which it must be adopted, arises again. China may no longer fear destruction as it did when faced with imperialism of the West and Japan in the 19th century, but on the road to revival China cannot stand still. As the Chinese Communist Party itself recognizes, standing still will be to perish. The question is, how much change can it bring at the Central Committee Plenum? The problem raised by Kang Youwei remains unanswered. No change is not an option, and too little will bring failure, but can enough change be made to keep moving on the road to revival?Author : Duncan Freeman