• Roberto P. Lim Jr.

Of Nightmares and Aspirations: Interrogations on the Chinese Dream

Photo Source: DW

Living the (Chinese) Dream

In the national context, dreams are manifestations of the collective spirit and the driving force of both development and destruction. But dreams never exist in empty space, especially in a global political landscape filled with overlapping and contesting interests, claims, and beliefs. These eventually manifest into action and become drivers of policy agenda by countries capable of doing so. Consequently, this raises the question whether dreams should be viewed as welcoming indicators of cooperation and unity or as warning signs for the rest of the world to become warier of international powers. This article sheds light on the nature and manifestations of the Chinese Dream. Further posed is a need to examine the promise and obstacles it holds for the Philippines’ pursuit of its national aspirations.

Essentially, the Chinese Dream is the overarching development narrative used by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he first referenced it in November 2012. It communicates the hopes of achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2021, and a prosperous, strong, culturally advanced, and harmonious China by 2049. It is the dream of the Chinese people banking on national rejuvenation from a century of humiliation. While this highlights China’s phenomenal experiences of tribulations and triumphs, especially as a resultant of its reform and opening up stage, this dream can be viewed in at least two ways. Firstly, it served as a notable feat responding to China’s defeat from the Opium War. Secondly, it is a tool by Xi to continue shaping collective memory by emphasizing humiliation to march further towards progress.

A Chinese Nightmare?

However, realities on the ground are not as remarkable, promising, and peaceful as how the dream says so. For starters, China’s amplification of its Qing-era superiority draws the inevitable silence that CPC has on the inherent problems of the period which actually led to their defeat at the hands of a more powerful West. Furthermore, neighboring countries do not immediately embrace the strategies China uses to pursue such dreams, as it inevitably flexes its own muscles overseas for a more legitimate Party image.

This muscle flexing inevitably goes against the welfare and interests of its ASEAN neighbors. Such Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea can be felt even at the grassroots level, where Filipino fisherman Carlo Montehermozo highlights in a recent interview how the times had still been excruciating for people like him. They continue risking their well-being as they go offshore and make a living, despite the possibility of being harassed by Chinese maritime militia. This is perhaps an image that runs counter to the Chinese Dream’s path of peaceful development and pursue an opening-up strategy that brings mutual benefits. Potentially, instances like this compel one to take a critical view of the Chinese Dream. It only becomes a façade to the rest of its neighbors in the region; its pursuit of peace and prosperity is not as pleasant and inclusive as everyone may think it is.

With this, subscribing to the Chinese Dream becomes potentially riskier. It becomes equivalent to enabling China’s deviation from its own promise of peaceful development and upholding mutual benefits with the rest of the world. China’s inclination to maintain its own domestic legitimacy, especially within the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, implores itself to project power overseas. China continues to intrude on the contested territories in the South China Sea by upholding the potency of the nine-dash line. Moreover, the intensification of offshore gaming operations in the Philippines continue to cause tension in key points in the capital, further dislodging the sense of harmony across the Filipinos and Chinese in the metro. Consequently, China instead repels support from its ASEAN neighbors, including the Philippines, as these actions are continually running counter to China’s promises of a peaceful rise.

This concern further divides Philippine society in its own views towards these domestic and international issues. In a nation that already observes various social, political, and economic cleavages, adding perceptions towards the Chinese Dream further complicates the scenario. The Filipino populace is a collective that is yet to come to terms with its Chinese migrant communities. Hence, racial affronts continue to mar the Philippines’ own landscape of harmony.

Dream of One, Dream of All?

Perhaps there is still more that lies beyond incidents over the disputed islands, the racial tensions, and the underlying prejudice that comes with these issues. After all, the Chinese Dream claims that all countries are bound together by interests and common pursuits of beautiful dreams. While this implies China taking a regional, if not a global, leadership role, it may be capable of establishing an overarching dream that the rest of East Asia can grasp and pursue in the future.

Perhaps these beautiful dreams for the rest of the world is tantamount to the scene of the East’s (re)emergence. The global community now witnesses the Asian Century, a period realizing what former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard claims as Asia’s return to global leadership and attainment of an unprecedented level of development, as well as an anticipation of what Parag Khanna calls as the world’s Asianization, all coming to life through China’s promises. Such a meta-developmental turn allows the rest of the world, including the Philippines, to look into an Eastern perspective and experience of prosperity, one that is contrasting but not necessarily antithetical to the hegemonic and Western status quo.

The Chinese Dream allows the people to delve into introspection, highlighting the urgency and capability of the East to dream greater aspirations than before. Such a rhetorical device compels governments and scholars of developing nations to reflect upon possible directions that their respective regions and countries should traverse. As the Philippines develops its own collective aspirations through the Ambisyon Natin 2040, perhaps intertwining its own resilience and strength-oriented goals may be compatible with the views espoused in an Eastern narrative like the Chinese Dream. This implies that the dreaming process is no longer a luxurious capability done by developed nations. The Chinese experience emphasizes that a dream becomes a social and national responsibility to culminate consciousness towards prosperity.

Reading the Signs Moving Forward

Ultimately, understanding China’s national aspirations and policy premises will provide significant insight into its future actions and how the Philippines can respond accordingly. On the one hand, it is important to juxtapose Xi’s Chinese Dream with its actions on the ground, which has been more assertive territorially, much to the dismay of its ASEAN neighbors. Consequently, a critical reading of China’s intentions and aspirations will spur Filipino’s vigilance and wariness: after all, it is China’s dream. One the other hand, a welcoming view of the dream also welcomes the potentialities of a world order that is not necessarily Eastern-dominated, but Eastern-guided in terms of intentions and actions, hence an alternate route of alliance building and management for the Philippines that veers away from a Western-inclined status quo.

This emphasizes the need for everyone—the government, scholars, and especially the Filipino people—to engage in deep thought by reflecting on the Chinese Dream. A few months before the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, perhaps the need to reconcile its simultaneous pursuit of a more independent foreign policy and relatively friendlier relations with China may commence with a thorough examination of the Chinese Dream. Will the Chinese Dream enable or impede the realization of these pursuits amid a backdrop of a reemerging United States in the global leadership scheme? Will the Chinese Dream provide the Philippines clues to remain aligned with either power in the global leadership rivalry between the US and China? Will the Chinese Dream even be the warning that the Philippines needs to rapidly develop a credible defense posture?

Whether the Chinese Dream will be beneficial for the common good of the region and world is yet to be seen and tested. To develop a more informed understanding and assessment of this dream, the Filipino people should accommodate the confluence of both critical and welcoming views towards China and its actions. A coherent and decisive reception of the Philippines can ultimately dictate how its aspirations will eventually play out amid the multiplicity of intentions, aspirations, and dreams.


Roberto P. Lim Jr. is currently finishing his Master of Arts degree in Asian Studies (with specialization in China) at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is currently the Head Teacher of the Senior High School Department of the Philippine Cultural College – Main Campus, where he has been teaching social science and media literacy courses for four years now. Aside from teaching, he is also currently the auditor of the Philippine Association for Media and Information Literacy (PAMIL), and a member of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS). His scholarly interests include Chinese history, politics and governance, and media representations.

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