Please Give Us a Chinese Dream

Jun 01, 2011

Frustrated by the declining social mobility in China, Lang Xianping looks to the American system – and Obama – for inspiration.

905 Investing in the American dream, most probably using “grey income”.According to a report last year, China’s underground economy amounted to as much as 9.26 trillion yuan, or about one-third of the country’s GDP. You can imagine all the different types of “grey income” – money paid under the table and untaxed – floating around.

The problem of grey income lies not just in the numbers. For the society itself it represents an even greater problem – the freezing of societal ranks. What do I mean?

People’s Daily published an excellent article last year that talked about the mobility of Chinese society during the feudal times. A meritocratic system then allowed the poor to study hard to succeed in imperial exams and become government officials, thus gaining wealth and respectability in society. Such a historical tradition no longer exists today. Now you slog to finish your studies at Beida (Peking University), Tsinghua or Fudan, and earn a monthly salary of 2,000 yuan – but that’s still nothing compared to what a nightclub hostess can get in grey income.

That’s what I call a subversion of Chinese culture. In the past one relied on academic hard work to make a mark for himself in life. Today what can you turn to? Short-selling, cornering, speculation… For with a job that pays just 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month and without a grey income, you can well forget about the house, the car and even the wife.

Now you slog to finish your studies at Beida and earn a monthly salary of 2,000 yuan – but that’s still nothing compared to what a nightclub hostess can get.

How can one increase social mobility in China? After all we must give people a chance. Why do so many Chinese flock to the United States for their studies with the hope of remaining there? Is it because the U.S. is so good? Is it more interesting than China? I would hardly say so. It’s because the United States has something that we can well learn from – what their government proudly proclaims as the American Dream – where a black man like Obama, a third-generation immigrant whose parents started out washing dishes in restaurants, can become president. What is the American Dream? It’s not about paying a better salary or giving the chance to earn a grey income, but it’s about giving people hope. As long as you give everyone hope and the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself, this will create the passion and the will to excel – because he has a dream, that one day he could become the next Obama. Do you think today’s China offers such opportunities?

The above is a translated and edited excerpt from Lang Xianping’s blog.