What happened to the China dream?, by David Ownby (Le Monde diplomatique

We’ve had enough: protest against anti-Covid restrictions, Beijing, 28 November 2022


Before the pandemic, China was less distant. During the 2010s, direct flights from Montreal to Beijing or Shanghai flew over the North Pole in roughly 12 hours. When China opened up this spring after three years of lockdowns, the direct flights were no more. My best bet was a ticket Montreal-Toronto-Zurich-Hong Kong, 30-plus hours to get me to China’s gateway. But the impact of the virus on China is not limited to air travel.

I was in pursuit of the China dream. My last visit was in 2018, since when I have run a blog (‘Reading the China Dream’) that follows intellectual life in China, and where I read, translate and curate the writings of intellectuals who are neither regime propagandists nor dissidents. There are of course taboo subjects – such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Xi Jinping. Outside of such zones, there remains a (shrinking) space to discuss and debate current affairs. 
We might call such authors ‘public intellectuals with Chinese characteristics’. Most are university professors who also write for the public. They are products of reform and opening-up, like the high-speed trains and gleaming airports that have sprung up all over the country. In this space, intellectual pluralism and authoritarian rule managed to coexist, if uneasily. This pluralism, and the freedom of thought that underpins it, are an integral part of the China dream of the thinkers I’ve been working with.

Behind a facade of openness

Xi Jinping’s China dream is different. He is categorically opposed to this pluralism and from the start has tried to reimpose ideological discipline to put the genie back in the bottle. Intellectuals resist in their own way. Wondering what it was like on the ground after three years of pandemic and isolation, I visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in May.

At first glance, China looked good, really good. Beijing was more beautiful and cleaner than I remembered; my hipster hotel, nestled in a charming hutong near the (…)

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David Ownby

David Ownby is an associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, and the author of L’essor de la Chine et les intellectuels publics chinois (The Rise of China and Chinese Public Intellectuals), Éditions du College de France, Paris, 2023. What happened to the China dream?, by David Ownby (Le Monde diplomatique

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