BEIJING - What exactly is the Chinese dream? You could define it using current key words buzzing on the Internet: “the counter-attack of the diao-sze”, meaning the little people, and in particular the poor who succeed in raising their status in society through their own great efforts.
The Chinese dream is related to the “American Dream.” They are not much different in their core meaning; one gains a better life through one’s own continuous hard work. It means that people have to achieve prosperity through their own labor, courage, creativity and determination, rather than by belonging to a specific social class or relying on the assistance of others.
A society with a “dream” is a society full of hope. A few years ago, an essay that was circulating online called “I struggled for 18 years to be able to sit down and have coffee with you..” provoked a lot of both comment and sentiment in China. In the essay, the author, a son of a farmer, depicted how he struggled through long years of hard work and a university degree to change his place in society.
Part of the blame is the unfair household registration (hukou) system that still deprives most migrant workers’ children of equal access to school, to medical insurance, as well as any chance of a formal job in the cities.
If the article threw into relief the inequality of Chinese society, at least, there was still somehow hope in the author’s bitterness.
Alas, today’s China is facing a different plight, where it would be true to say: “I have been struggling for 18 years, and I still can’t have coffee with you...” In sociological terms what is happening is class-solidification. The solidification refers to the fact that social mobility is no longer smooth. Each class is closed up in its own small circle. There’s no more flow either up or down, but only inter-generation transmission.
In Chinese practice, this means the appearance of terms such as “Princelings”, “2G Rich”, and the “2G migrant-workers.” The chance to rise up in society no longer depends on one’s diligence or guts but rather a “competition of one’s parents” (pindie). The Chinese dream is disappearing.
Dou Xiaohong, a demographic scholar, conducted a survey recently. Using birthplaces, age, and education level he extracted several groups of graduates from a college in Hunan Province so as to analyze the relationship between their career development and their family background. The investigation concluded that the occupational status of the parents largely determines their children’s career path.
And how did the public respond to such a conclusion? According to the investigation, 76% of respondents fully agree with the findings.
The conclusion was confirmed in another study, at Tsinghua University, called “How parents’ political capital affects university graduates’ performance in the labor market.” It stated that the “princeling” (descendants of powerful Communist party founders) has an average starting salary 13% higher than that of a graduate from an ordinary family background.
The report pointed out that in relation to the parents' other characteristics, such as their “hukou,” income and education, the parents’ political capital plays an even greater role. The possible explanation is that either the princelings’ parents possess special relations with employers, or they have much better access to employment information.
Such data won't surprise many. Among the endless shady dealings in the enrollment of China’s civil servants, officials too often offer a blatant leg up to their own children. Such behavior is so common that people call the recruitment exams for governmental officials “the princelings’ highway” and “the narrow trail of the grassroots children.”
The Chinese dream disappears as social fairness dwindles. A society’s fairness manifests in three aspects: the starting point, the rules and the opportunities. Yet, all three of these aspects face serious deficiencies in China.
The equality of access to education is the basis for a fair starting point. But statistics show that fewer and fewer children from rural areas enter the top schools, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University. In other words, the probability that one changes one’s fate through knowledge is getting more and more rare.
As for the lack of fairness of rules, it’s most evident in the enrollment of civil servants.
And finally, how about the fairness of opportunity? In the current social transition from getting rich through labor to getting rich through existing wealth, the low-income class who lack protection are oppressed by high housing costs and high prices.
When China first started its economic reforms and opened itself up, society was full of hope that everybody would benefit. This optimism then was not because people thought society was perfect, but because so much was to be restored and reinvigorated -- and the starting point, rules and opportunities were relatively fair for everyone.
A society with more fairness, openness and transparency will allow for a smooth migration among classes. We need cleaner government, a more open market, and more transparent rules to operate. Only if we invest in building these foundations can our society avoid the class-solidification, ruptures and conflicts that are undermining our entire society.