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.
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.
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.