Thomas Friedman: I only deserve partial credit for coining the ‘Chinese dream’

Thomas Friedman: I only deserve partial credit for coining the ‘Chinese dream’

This week’s Economist cover story is about Xi Jinping’s catchphrase "Chinese dream," which symbolizes the aspirations of the Chinese people and nation. The magazine suggests, bizarrely but convincingly, that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is responsible for the slogan now known by hundreds of millions of people across China:

Where did the slogan come from? Quite possibly the New York Times. Last October, in the run up to Mr Xi’s ascension, the Times ran a column by Thomas Friedman entitled "China Needs Its Own Dream". Mr Friedman said that if Mr Xi’s dream for China’s emerging middle-class was just like the American dream ("a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all") then "another planet" would be needed. Instead he urged Mr Xi to come up with "a new Chinese dream that marries people’s expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China." China’s biggest-circulation newspaper, Reference News, ran a translation.

According to Xinhua, a government news agency, the Chinese dream "suddenly became a hot topic among commentators at home and abroad". When Mr Xi began to use the phrase, Globe, a magazine published by Xinhua, called Mr Xi’s Chinese-dream idea "the best response to Friedman."

I asked Friedman whether all this was true, and he responded by email:

"I only deserve part credit," he noted. "The concept of ‘China Dream’ was created by my friend Peggy Liu, as the motto for her NGO about how to introduce Chinese to the concept of sustainability."

Friedman’s "China Dream" column references Liu and her NGO JUCCCE. In his email to me, he wrote, "I adapted her concept in the column below and just took [it] all the way to [the] top and made it a challenge for Xi Jinping." "I just took it to a higher level — put it right in his face so to speak — in hopes of making it scale by challenging the next party chairman to adopt it," he added.

So there you have it. I doubt Xi Jinping — or anyone familiar with his thinking — will ever deny this account, and perhaps it will take hold. (James Fallows at the Atlantic points out "the idea of a ‘Chinese dream’ has been around for a long time," but Friedman’s China op-ed appears to have done what he tries to do in many columns — repackage an old idea and sell it to his readers. If the Economist‘s theory is right, Xi bought it.)

Journalists love to hate on Thomas Friedman — see here, here, here, and, well, Twitter — but the man has influence.