Since taking over as the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November, Xi Jinping has created a heated discussion in China and abroad over his use of the phrase, “Chinese Dream.” In his various public speeches, he has repeatedly emphasized that achieving the Chinese Dream of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” was his government’s main objective. While this has been applauded enthusiastically at home, people outside of China have struggled to ascertain the precise meaning of Xi’s statement. This is unfortunate because the Chinese Dream is essential for understanding how a “rising” China views itself and its role in the world. Failure to understand its meaning will thus heighten the chances for misunderstanding, with potentially devastating consequences for all parties involved.
Although outsiders almost always speak of China’s “rise,” the Chinese like to refer to their impressive recent achievements and future planned development as “rejuvenation” (fuxing). The use of that word underscores an important point: the Chinese view their fortunes as a return to greatness and not a rise from nothing. In fact, rejuvenation is deeply rooted in Chinese history and the national experience, especially with regards to the so-called “century of national humiliation” that began with the First Opium War (1839–1842) and lasted through the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. China’s memory of this period as a time when it was attacked, bullied, and torn asunder by imperialists serves as the foundation for its modern identity and purpose.
As Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung has noted, key historical events are critical in defining a group’s identity and determining how that group behaves in conflict situations. Galtung argues that the three forces of chosenness (the idea of being a people chosen by transcendental forces), trauma, and myths combine to form a country’s Chosenness–Myths–Trauma (CMT) complex. This CMT complex is an extremely useful tool for understanding the rationale behind many of China’s actions.
Specifically, as proud citizens of the “Middle Kingdom” the Chinese feel a strong sense of chosenness and are extremely proud of their ancient and modern achievements. This pride is tempered, however, by the lasting trauma seared into the national conscious as a result of the country’s humiliating experiences at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism. After suffering a humiliating decline in national strength and status, the Chinese people are unwavering in their commitment to return China to its natural state of glory, thereby achieving the Chinese Dream. However, China has never clearly stated what the criteria and measurements are to determine the realization of rejuvenation.