Compare the American Dream to the Chinese Dream


The Oscar-nominated documentary Ascension, our Econ Extra Credit pick for June, takes viewers up and down various social and economic ladders.

Take the opening scene, an outdoor job market where recruiters use megaphones to advertise jobs at local factories that pay the equivalent of $2.99 ​​an hour. Pay is low compared to cities where many Chinese factories are located, but the promise of advancement, remote as it may be, is enough to attract workers. At the end of the film, viewers are whisked away into the high-rise apartments and boardrooms of the nouveau riche.

“Chinese workers, like America, believe that if they work hard, they can be successful,” Marketplace China correspondent Jennifer Pak told Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

“It’s more intense here than in the US [because] China has 1.4 billion people. The competition is tough.”

Many Chinese have seen a real improvement in their income and purchasing power, in part due to the rapid industrialization that has been achieved over the past 40 years. And China’s economic growth is stunning. The gross domestic product of the world’s second largest economy reached 14.7 trillion US dollars in 2020.

But that total hides the fact that 2020 income per person was just $10,434, about a sixth of what it was in the United States that year.

The Chinese average may seem modest to an American, but it’s shaped by promises made by President Xi Jinping, who pledged to increase income per person to $10,000 by 2021. Xi has promoted his vision of a Chinese dream that will bring “prosperity for all Chinese people by 2049” by eliminating poverty, pollution, corruption and ethnic strife. Xi’s vision has also promoted ethnic nationalism and excluded certain minorities living in China. This 2015 piece by The Atlantic addresses the paradox.

“When [Chinese people] If you have children, if everything goes according to plan, your children will go to university, get a good job, be well paid and have a better life,” explained Pak.

Researchers have found that most Chinese believe they can and will climb the social ladder. Even those whose social mobility has measurably decreased over the past 10 years still believe they will be better off. This bears a striking resemblance to Americans believing that the American dream is still achievable, despite data suggesting that that kind of progress is now much more difficult to achieve.

“There are certainly people here in China who feel that mobility isn’t as easy or not as easy as it used to be,” said Pak, noting that the economy is struggling to attract enough high-paying jobs for China’s create 10.8 million college graduates this year.

“[It’s] especially in the cities where the parents may have already studied and now … it is more difficult for them to get well-paying jobs. But when you come from the country, you start from a very low base. You have grandparents, parents who talk about not having enough to eat, and children who may now have meat as a regular part of their diet. That’s a huge change.”

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Watching Ascension, we were struck by glimpses of Chinese workers making everyday products: the small pump for hairspray bottles, for example; the branches for fake Christmas trees; the fluffy blankets that keep us warm in the colder months.

“I once bought a Chrysler minivan that had dealer plates with a Stars and Stripes and the words ‘America Has My Vote,'” recalls David Brancaccio. “I later found out that the engine was a Mitsubishi made in Japan and the whole van had been assembled in Canada.”

As he asked in last week’s newsletter, “How far have we progressed in understanding how the objects around us were formed?”

Tell us if you’ve ever been confused or surprised to learn where a product was made. As always, you can reach us at [email protected] We will feature some of the most colorful instances in our next newsletter.

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