The Chinese dream, the British dream, and the American dream, compared

“Life should be better for the next generation.”
“Life should be better for the next generation.”
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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Many people are wondering just what British prime minister Theresa May meant when she vowed to bring back the “British dream” during her big speech at Wednesday’s (Oct. 4) annual conference of her Conservative Party, an address that one British paper rather unkindly dubbed a “nightmare.”

Commentators in the UK have turned the term into memes about tea and sweets, and complained the speech was as dull as might be expected from a Chinese Communist party apparatchik. Chinese internet users, meanwhile, were excited about the idea that May might have borrowed the slogan from their president Xi Jinping, who put forth the catch-phrase “Chinese dream” when he came into power nearly five years ago. (Xi, in turn, might have had some inspiration from the American Dream, a phrase whose popularity dates back at least to the 1930s.)

The world’s major powers might all have dreams, be they British or Chinese, South African or American. But these national dreams contain very different promises to each country’s citizens.

The British dream

The word “dream” appeared 33 times in May’s cough-ridden address Wednesday, which came after she blew a majority in Parliament after June’s snap election. Political watchers say May had hoped to use her big speech—in which she announced plans to build more affordable houses and put a cap on energy bills—to revive her floundering leadership. She appears not to have achieved that.

In her speech, May described the British dream as the vision that “life should be better for the next generation.” She said her grandmother, a former domestic servant who ended up having three professors and a prime minister among her grandchildren, was proof that the dream could be real. But she admitted the dream was out of reach for many people today and promised to fix that. In this incarnation, the British dream isn’t so different than the American dream. One sign the British dream needs fixing? The large numbers of the ruling elite who come from this university and do this degree.

Despite widespread confusion about the term, May is not the first British politician to speak of the British dream. As the BBC noted, Steven Woolfe, a former member of the European Parliament from the right-wing UK Independence Party, claimed last year to be “living proof” of the British dream, which he says is the chance to “succeed in all aspects of your life, no matter your postcode, your gender or the colour of your skin.” (He’s since left the party.)

After the 2005 London bombings that killed more than 50 people, then-Conservative Party leader Michael Howard wrote in a column that the British dream embodied “a sense of allegiance to the values that are the hallmark of Britain—decency, tolerance and a sense of fair play.” He called on the government to use powers to revoke the citizenship and residency more widely, particularly to people “who make it clear that they do not recognise any allegiance to our country, and could constitute a threat to national security.”

In August the same year, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, then a shadow minister, wrote that the British dream was about language, and hewing to the mainstream culture. “If you want to build a society where everyone feels included, and where everyone shares in the national story, we cannot continue with the multicultural apartheid,” he said, calling for a ban on imams from delivering sermons in anything but English.

The Chinese dream

Every supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party has his favorite political slogan. And so it is with the Chinese Dream for Xi jinping, who proposed the term shortly after he stepped into power in late 2012. Xi initially described the Chinese Dream as the vision of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Later, he enriched the concept a bit, by saying the dream is fundamentally about “making life better for the Chinese people.” Part of that vision is to build a “moderately prosperous society,” with China vowing to wipe out poverty by 2020.

But at its core the Chinese Dream is about collective aspiration rather than individual aspiration, or as the Diplomat puts it, it’s “our dream,” instead of “my dream.” International relations researcher Jin Kai writes, “While both ‘dreams’ hope for success through hard work, the American Dream stresses the spirit of freedom and social mobility, while the China Dream (although it incorporates individual dreams) pinpoints unity and stability.”

The dream is also about a powerful state taking a more assertive role on the world stage after having achieved envious economic development in the past decades. And Xi has turned the idea at least partially into reality, with some cooperation from Trump.

State media has heavily promoted the Chinese dream both at home and abroad since the term was introduced. Expect the catch-phrase to float around for at least five more years with Xi set to start his second term later this month.

The American dream

The term “American Dream” was coined by financier-turned-historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America. Adams defines it as the vision that everyone in America can climb the ladder if he works hard. He wrote:

[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

For decades, particularly in the economic boom that resulted after World War II, the American dream seemed well within the grasp of many people—or, at any rate, families headed by white males. Later, as the civil rights movement beat back segregation, and as more diverse immigrant success stories became commonplace, the dream appeared to extend to more groups of people.

Today, the American dream is somewhat frayed. Only 23% of Americans believe that it is common for someone to start poor, work hard and get rich, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2014 and released last month, while a few years ago 40% thought so. Many now say the belief underlying the idea of the American dream didn’t take into account how much of a negative or positive role race can play in how far you get, even today.

More broadly, equality in the United States has risen over the last two decades, and some data shows young people today are earning less than the Boomer generation did at a similar stage in life.