Home > Analysis > Are The American and Chinese Dreams That Different – You Can’t Tell From Obama’s March on Washington Speech Yesterday

Are The American and Chinese Dreams That Different – You Can’t Tell From Obama’s March on Washington Speech Yesterday

common aspirationsYesterday, the U.S. marked the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”  It was in that event 50 years ago that King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech.  By most accounts, Obama’s speech is well-delivered and well-received – albeit “not as good.”  It could not be, Obama would explain, “[b]ecause when you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history. And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”

If King’s speech 50 years ago was among the “five greatest speeches” in American history, the Obama’s speech today is a present-day synthesis of all that Americans hold most dear.  If you listen, you will glimpse the American Dreams and feel America’s soul. Here is an excerpt of the speech 1.

Five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise — those truths — remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands from every corner of our country, men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others.

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability.

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. (Applause.)

For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise that in due time, “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an
equal chance.”

And Dr. King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races: “Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.”

What King was describing has been the dream of every American.

And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.)

The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many — for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business.

Throughout the speech, the ideals of equality and the opportunity shone through.  And it struck me how close the ideals Obama evoked matched the ideals of China.  The American Dream – despite the pompous Universal Declaration of Freedom and Universality- summons so much of traditional (and contemporary) Chinese conceptions of xiao kang (小康).  The notion of xiao kang can be loosely translated as a “moderately or commonly well-off society” in which the people are able to live peacefully, orderly and comfortably, albeit ordinarily. This should be contrasted to notions of  da tong (大同), roughly translated as “Great Unity”, “Great Community”, “Great Universality”, “Great Similarity”, “Grand Harmony” –  which form a political framework for big thinking about justice and legitimacy.  (Think of da tong as China’s contribution – albiet much  unexplored in the modern world – to political notions of universalism).  In many ways, da tong can only be an ideal, where the  measure of any government must still be judged against how much of xiao kang it can deliver.

A lot of Americans – especially those in the blogsphere and the media) – tend to look down on the Chinese Dream or notions of xiao kang and harmonious society.  To them, the CCP’s relentless focus on economic development is a sort of “buy off” – a devil’s bargain of material comfort for freedom.  Such talk is unfortunate.  For one, it is disingenuous. Despite the West’s grand talks about liberty and human rights, economics progress, rather than ideology, is the most fundamental the underpin of Western / modern society.  As Robert Samuelson has noted,

What we are witnessing in Europe — and what may loom for the United States — is the exhaustion of the modern social order. Since the early 1800s, industrial societies rested on a marriage of economic growth and political stability. Economic progress improved people’s lives and anchored their loyalty to the state. Wars, depressions, revolutions and class conflicts interrupted the cycle. But over time, prosperity fostered stable democracies in the United States, Europe and parts of Asia. The present economic crisis might reverse this virtuous process. Slower economic expansion would feed political instability and vice versa. This would be a historic and ominous break from the past.

Secondly, it is demeaning. Chinese people are real human beings with real dreams. For the average Chinese, notions of xiao kang and harmonious society – after centuries of civil strife and foreign invasions – are concrete and real.  They are as much about justice as the Civil Rights Movement is for the Americans and evoke just as much emotions and longings as the Civil Rights Movement does also.

Thus, scrape away sufficient historical context of what freedom and equality means, the Dreams of both Chinese and Americans look increasingly similar.  In current vernacular, that Dream is about the building of a society that is able to put a comfortable middle class lifestyle within reach of people from all walks of life – irrespective of ethnicity, religion, class, etc.   In other words, it is about xiao kang.

So Chinese and American Dreams – or that of Westerners in general – are they really that different?


  1. A transcript of Obama’s speech can be found here and a video can be found here.
  1. Black Pheonix
    August 29th, 2013 at 09:37 | #1

    Yes, true equality is really about practical opportunities, not abstract “rights”.

    And 60 years of after Dr. King’s speech proved that, by showing the opposite, that oppression and inequality and racism can come even with “rights”, under the technicalities of a system.

    The last 60 years also showed the side of a “democracy” that has grown shameless in its technicalities to the point of irrelevance and apathy to true equality.

    Racism no longer exist openly or legally in US, but is now just another layer of shameless informal exploitation.

    The current system of “equality” shamelessly put in more minorities in prison, while shamelessly proclaim that big corporations are “too big to prosecute.”

    Such is no equality by any person’s standards.

    *In the face of inequality, it is good to reflect the principle of Dr. King’s “non-violent” civil disobedience.

    Why civil disobedience?

    It is in its core, to shame those who do wrong, by forcing the public to witness the shameful deeds of inequality.

    In doing so, the shameful deeds are exposed to the public light, and the public is compelled into change of mindset and laws and customs in confronting the shame.

    *But does the current system even recognize shame any more? Not when it buries its head under the self-righteous facades of technical “equality” and “democracy”.

  2. August 29th, 2013 at 22:09 | #2

    While Obama’s speech seems nice, the political climate in America is so divisive, the only uniting force for the country seems to come only from invading foreign countries. Syria can only pray that it won’t get bombed soon.

  3. pug_ster
    August 30th, 2013 at 15:40 | #3


    Reading this is just plain funny.


    Agreed, reading America’s ‘intelligence’ about the supposingly Syria’s use of Chemical weapons is just plain laughable. There’s plenty of instances where the ‘rebels’ have pocessed chemical weapons.



  4. August 30th, 2013 at 21:19 | #4

    The other thing to note is how quickly this Syria thing has silenced the NSA scandal.

  5. qfrealist
    August 31st, 2013 at 06:56 | #5

    Obama is a puppet to his deep gov globalist empire war monger Rep and Dems who want war. His speech was a cover/distraction for his latest warmongering over Syria, the look good speech.

  6. February 27th, 2014 at 22:17 | #6

    Once in a while, I re-read my old posts and realized that while certain points are valid, I may have gotten other points wrong.

    In this post, I tried to make the point that at the roots, the American and Chinese Dreams aren’t that different. That’s correct in the materialistic sense, but I may also have been understood to say that the dreams are the same – and only the same so much as materialism is concerned. Let me correct myself if I came across that way. Material comfort is an important component of both the Chinese and American Dream, but the Chinese Dream is certainly much more than material catch up …

    Here is one way to describe the Chinese Dream.

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