By contrast, the Chinese see their country as a status-quo power whose actions are inherently defensive. From this perspective, the Chinese are merely trying to protect their ancestral rights— as laid out in historical documents— from the encroachment of others. Far from seeking to gain an advantage over others, the Chinese are simply restoring the justice that was previously shattered by Western colonial powers. This is why many ordinary Chinese are outraged when they perceive their government as not being assertive enough in defending these rights.
Another important aspect is whether the national dream is based on an accurate interpretation of history. For example, while China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea is based on a map from 1947, it is unclear, even based on this map, whether the “nine-dash line” indicates ownership of the islands alone, or over both the islands and the waters within the dashes. Without clarifying this outstanding issue, the map is used in Chinese geography classes. These actions may ingrain into younger generations the belief that realizing the “nine-dash-line” is an integral part of fulfilling the Chinese Dream.
Concurrently with pursuing the Chinese Dream, Xi has followed his predecessors in emphasizing the importance of continuing the policy of reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping initiated two decades ago. Indeed, shortly after becoming the CCP’s new leader, Xi gave a well-publicized speech in which he discussed the importance a nation must place on choosing the right path because a nation’s path is its “destiny.” Notably, Xi delivered this speech just before launching an extensive tour of Guangdong Province that mirrored the Southern Tour Deng had taken twenty years ago when his reform and opening up policies had stalled.
The timing of Xi’s speech on choosing the correct national path was a strong reaffirmation that Xi is committed to advancing Deng’s policies. This is undoubtedly the right choice; China has arguably benefited more than any other nation from the process of globalization, and embracing globalization has empowered China to the point where it can realistically aspire to fulfilling the Chinese Dream in a definitive time period.
However, in order to continue and deepen China’s reform and opening policy, Xi and his colleagues must break with their predecessors in finally acknowledging the inherent tension that exists between cultivating blind nationalism at home while embracing globalization abroad. They should be aware that patriotism can easily become nationalism, and an overly nationalistic foreign policy will antagonize China’s trading partners and undercut economic development.
The Chinese are pursuing the dream of rejuvenating the nation in the 21st century. In this process, however, China must not only modernize its financial system and infrastructure, such as railways, but also strengthen its political institutions and education system. Chinese elites should recognize that their dream of restoring China’s long lost glory should actually be geared toward a realistic, less nationalistic goal of nation building. At the same time, they should work on helping the outside world understand what exactly the Chinese Dream is. Only by doing this can the Chinese Dream be comprehended and blessed by China’s neighbors and the international community.
Zheng Wang is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an associate professor at Seton Hall University. He is the author, most recently, of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.