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China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future by William A Callahan

China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future by William A Callahan

This book contains much of interest. The way that the Chinese government makes policy is hidden to outsiders. There aren’t the public discussions or off the record briefings that we are used to in the west. This has led to westerners using ‘Kremlinological’ methods (ie trying to get information from those close to power) to guess at what is really going on and what the future direction might be.

The author’s alternative is to look at the ideas of some 20 people (all Han Chinese men) who are not in government but are what he calls ‘citizen intellectuals’. They have various backgrounds. Several are economists who studied in the west and achieved great prominence (hence their support for central authority against human rights is perhaps surprising). One is a blogger, Han Han, who at that time ran the most popular blog in China (and hence the world) that was often outspokenly critical of censorship and the costs of China’s progress to ordinary people. At the time. as the author says, “the multiple decentered nature of blogs means that although Han’s posts are occasionally censored – or “harmonized” – they are always available somewhere else.’

The book appeared at a fortunate time. It was published in 2013, before the current premier, Xi Jinping, had been fully established in his post. In the years from 2003 or so to 2012, the Chinese government allowed a fairly wide range of opinions to be expressed. During this period Beijing hosted the Olympics (2008) and Shanghai the World Expo, a huge trade fair, in 2010.

Thus the book was written during a relatively liberal era, allowing the author to collect such a wide range of views. Since then there has been a massive expansion and improvement of control technologies (such as face recognition combined with massive databases). The central government clampdown has included, among other things, the mass incarceration of Muslim Uighars, the persecution of lawyers who take up civil liberties cases and state kidnapping of independent publishers. Perhaps as a result “since 2013, [Han] has rarely updated his blog, preferring short messages on his Weibo account, and often addressing personal issues rather than the scathing social and political criticism that made his early reputation"  (New York Times).

The book ends with an interesting contrast between the American Dream and the China Dream (an idea much promoted by premier Xi). Here we see ‘strange crossovers‘ between these dreams in a Chinese film that was hugely popular at the time, of a young Chinese woman working her way to the top of an American company based in Beijing. Here perhaps is the crux of the extraordinary combination of authoritarian one party rule and free wheeling capitalism.


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