This goal is hardly unique to Xi Jinping. Indeed, the explicit goal of rejuvenation goes at least as far back as Sun Yet-sen, and has been invoked by almost every modern Chinese leader from Chiang Kai-Shek to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In this way, leaders have used national rejuvenation as a grand goal to mobilize the Chinese population to support the revolution or reforms they launched. In making these efforts, they have helped transform China into the modern and more powerful nation it is today. Far from weakening their resolve, however, China’s impressive new achievements have only strengthened its citizens’ commitment to achieving the Chinese Dream.
It bears noting that the Chinese Dream is in many ways the polar opposite of the more widely understood American Dream. Specifically, whereas the American Dream emphasizes individuals attaining personal enrichment and success, the Chinese Dream is a collective undertaking that calls upon Chinese citizens to make personal sacrifices in order to serve the greater, national good. If there is an appropriate parallel in the U.S. it would not be the American Dream but President John F. Kennedy’s appeal to the American people to “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
Although the meaning of the Chinese Dream is practical and intuitively understood at home, it has the unfortunate consequence of remaining opaque to non-Chinese. Given that the Chinese Dream is deeply rooted in history— in particular on China’s interpretation of history which may differ in crucial ways from Japan or the United States’ own teachings of that history—there is an unavoidable chasm between how China perceives the Chinese Dream and how foreign audiences do. Not only do many non-Chinese lack a strong understanding of Chinese history, but many are not accustomed to drawing such a strong connection between historical events and current affairs.
This varying historical consciousness of different countries creates a perception gap. One need only look at the differences between how Chinese and Japanese students learn important historic events. For example, whereas Chinese students learn all the details about the Sino-Japanese War, Japanese history textbooks contain very little information on the war, so younger generations do not know much about that part of history. Thus, the Chinese and Japanese have contrasting views over the Diaoyu/Senkakus. The Chinese youth are emotional in regard to the territorial dispute because they connect the current standoff with past humiliations, but the Japanese consider these completely separate issues. The Japanese indifference towards historical issues in turn further infuriates the Chinese.
These different historical memories have caused misperceptions between China and some of its neighbors over other sovereignty issues. For example, it seems inconceivable to the Philippines and Vietnam that China’s historical evidence of sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea should take precedent over modern international law. Consequently, these countries and others perceive China’s claims and efforts to defend them as inherently aggressive, and in turn demonstrate that China is a revisionist power.