The “Chinese Dream” has become the most discussed topic today in China. Since the new President Xi Jinping and the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee formalized this new concept in November 2013 as the central guideline for China’s next decade, the Party and the government are trying to orientate this dream towards what the Party’s First Secretary Xi Jinping called the “Great Rejuvenation of the Nation”, which has a strong collective tone and even what many observers perceived as nationalistic  tone, but it doesn’t seem to be the concern of the vast majority of Chinese ordinary people. They have their own dreams and observe cautiously all the hype around this slogan, waiting for good reasons to believe in what they are promised.

Thirty years of reforms have brought tremendous changes to China and to Chinese citizens, in urban areas as well as in the rural ones. The level of poverty in China felled significantly during these three decades, bringing around five hundred millions  people out of absolute poverty by the UN standards. But even if these changes affected rural populations most significantly, they also created a growing gap between both parts of China, with a gap of 1:3 in the first decade of the 21st century. Despite active governmental policies income inequalities has stagnated these last few years at a high level. China’s Gini coefficient reached more than 0.45 in the early 2000s and rose further to a high of 0.49 and has stagnated since then at around 0.45. During this period, where GDP growth was the top priority in order to catch up with the industrialized world and meet the expectations of the population after ten years of Cultural Revolution which brought the country close to complete chaos, the accelerated pace of economic development impacted severally various aspects of the people’s lives in both positive and negative ways. During these three decades, Chinese people accepted a lot of sacrifices to put the country on the road to prosperity, hoping that their children and grand-children will have a better situation than they had. This was clearly a reasonable commitment to the future and has been generally speaking a huge success in terms of economic and social development. But this progress had to come to the expense of some specific sectors, particularly health and environment.

When discussing with different categories of Chinese citizens today, those two sectors of social life appear to be at the top of the priorities’ list in their dream. With the rise of a market economy and the reform of State subsidies, Chinese citizens lost the social protection that they had previously thanks to the socialist system. During the Mao’s decades, this protection was often at a low level of service, but basic needs where covered through a health system accessible to all, no matter their social level. With the reforms, social protection started to be transferred to enterprises, without clear rules, health services became financially autonomous and therefore more and more expensive.  Nowadays, most people interviewed in different parts of the country stress their concern about the cost of health, about the impossibility they would face to be properly treated if they have serious illness, about their health after retirement when their income will lower down.

The last two years have also shown a frightening increase of air and water pollution throughout the country caused by urbanization. The most striking example was in Beijing and Shanghai in 2013 where the air became so thick and unhealthy that lot of people started to wear masks in the street. The main reason for this high level of pollution is the place of coal in national energy production.  Coal-fired power stations are emitting huge quantities of particles but there is presently no immediate alternative to this energy. Two-thirds of electricity produced in China today comes from coal, compared to about 30% at the global level. China has become the world’s largest consumer of coal and a net importer, while it was an exporter until the nineties. Within the next twenty years, 350 million people are expected to move to cities from rural areas, a situation which will increase demand for energy.

Degradation of air and water has become for Chinese people a reality, not a science-fiction threat anymore. Damages caused to the environment during three decades have seriously affected all parts of the natural life in the country. Deforestation has reached unseen levels in the eighties and nineties and in regions like Sichuan, the most populated region of China, 90% of the forest have been destroyed in over thirty years. This phenomenon has aggravated desertification which reached terrible levels in regions like Inner Mongolia or Qinghai. Of course, the authorities have tried to stop this disaster by promulgating tough regulations against wood cuts, but illegal loggers went on in many regions thanks to corruption of local authorities. Ordinary citizens were banned from chopping firewood, but illegal logging never stopped. This caused soils erosion which then deprived farmers from good lands to cultivate. A reforestation programme has been launched at the nation level in 2002 and brought the conversion of more than 20 million hectares of cropland and barren land, affecting the daily life of 124 million rural people. A budget of more than 40 billion US$ was invested, which included direct payments to more than 32 million households. This made the “Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program’” (CCFP) one of the largest environmental programme in the world based on reforestation and afforestation. This policy is a top priority as the country is facing a rapid desertification situation. The “Three Norths Shelterbelt Development Program”, launched in 1978, was aimed at planting 90 million acres for new forest in a band of 2.800 miles across northern China. Many environmentalists have criticized these efforts because of the non-native species used, the trend to monoculture which doesn’t harbor much biodiversity and other reasons. But at least the programme has existed and gave way to the reforestation of millions of acres in arid regions.

Naturally, Chinese authorities are fully aware of the worrying situation of environment and often raise now the issue publicly. The Five-Year Plan presented in March 2011 showed a strong commitment to face this problem with effective measures. One of them was to limit the consumption of energy to the equivalent of four billion tons of coal by 2015. This was the first time ever such a target was clearly set. But this plan faces the reality: China cannot for the time being and not before years significantly reduces its coal consumption due to its needs of economic growth and its shortage of alternative sources of energy despite the efforts and budgets granted to the research on renewable energies.  After three decades of accelerated growth, the authorities have to fight on all fronts and against all kinds of lobbies. The situation of waters have also reached a pic of pollution recently, like the air, and a report of the administration of oceans stressed that “seriously polluted” waters have increased these last two years at a pace of around 35%, or 25.000 sq.m. In 2012, 46 000 tons of heavy metals and 93 000 tons of oil were poured in oceanic waters by the 72 Chinese rivers…

These problems caused by the rapid development of the last thirty years are in many cases linked to a governance issue. As old people use to say nowadays when asked about the situation, too many Chinese people have lost the Daode (“Moral”). One of the concerns of ordinary citizens if all levels corruption which affects many aspects of their life. Therefore, the campaign against corruption reactivated by President Xi and now causing huge damage in the ranks of the State bureaucracy and the Party, even if initially seen with skepticism, has become more and more popular and welcome. But the visible side-effects nowadays in China is the bankruptcy of many hotels, restaurants and leisure places, which induce new waves of unemployment… So is China, a unitary state, not like India, where every single measure taken by the central authorities have tremendous and quick effects on the life of the whole nation. 

Lionel Vairon, PhD is the Author of the “China Threat? The Challenges, Myths and Realities of China’s Rise” and former diplomat to Cambodia, Thailand, Iraq. He has a PhD in Far Eastern Studies and Masters in Chinese language and culture and in Political Science and is well versed on China related current events, including areas of politics, security, corruption, human rights, media and more.