For most of the past three years, I have helped run a program for high school students in Hunan Province, China, who wish to study in American universities. During this time, the China Dream propaganda campaign has been in full swing. It touts virtues such as “harmony,” “democracy,” and “patriotism,” plastering twelve such “core socialist values” on what seems like every blank wall in China. The patriotic theme is to be expected. After the Tiananmen affair, Chinese leaders recognized that alongside growing prosperity, citizens were best diverted from talk of internal change by appealing to outside threats that require redoubled solidarity. But at the same time, the government pushed a contrary theme, one that casts China in a “we are the world” plotline. Here, the Chinese self-image evinces a universalist meaning.
I was curious to see how the Chinese government reconciled these emphases: China as patriotic homeland facing geopolitical rivals and China as leading a universalizing movement. How does she make this dual identity clear and rational to her youth? To answer that question, I borrowed an eleventh-grade history text from one of my students and plunged in.