Xi’s early moves as party leader seem aimed at emphasizing national renewal, a theme he emphasized when he appeared on Nov. 29 with the party’s new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee in a history museum at Tiananmen Square.
According to CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily, Xi stood in front of an exhibition called The Road to Rejuvenation and said: “After the 170 or more years of constant struggle since the Opium Wars, the great revival of the Chinese nation enjoys glorious prospects.”
“Now everyone is discussing the Chinese dream, and I believe that realizing the great revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of Chinese in modern times,” he added.
The emphasis on a “Chinese dream” is particular to Xi, and could prove to be a recurring motif throughout his tenure.
The notion of a grand revival — fu xing in Mandarin — has been popular with Chinese leaders for at least a century, but Xi appears to be tapping more deeply into that nationalist vein than his recent predecessors, perhaps recognizing that traditional communist ideology no longer has popular appeal.
Given China’s many recent accomplishments, it is surprising that “this narrative, which counterpoises China against Japan and the West, should be becoming more rather than less prominent,” said Orville Schell, a veteran China observer who is co-writing a book on the country’s modern quest for wealth and power.
“As the new Chinese leadership begins to write the script for the next act of their country’s reform, it appears as if Xi Jinping is finding nationalism an irresistible ingredient in his effort to galvanize his people,” he said.
Xi’s brand of nationalism, analysts say, could mix bolder economic policies with anti-corruption campaigns, a vigorous military buildup and a strong foreign policy.
The combination is somewhat reminiscent of the Self-Strengthening Movement in the late 19th century, when some Chinese leaders and intellectuals tried to push institutional reforms to revive a weakening Qing Dynasty harassed by Western powers and Japan.
Anti-foreign nationalism, shaped by the state education system and mass media, is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese society. Just weeks before Xi took power, anti-Japan protests erupted in Chinese cities over a territorial dispute.
Under Xi, China has been assertive with Southeast Asian nations over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
On Dec. 5, Xi met with representatives of the Second Artillery Corps, which oversees China’s nuclear arsenal. That prompted the People’s Liberation Army Daily to say the next day: “In realizing the great dream of the great revival of the Chinese nation, the Second Artillery Corps is duty-bound to take up the task of forging the saber of a great power.”
For many Chinese, calls for revival refer to resurrecting a China strong enough to dictate foreign policy on its own terms, before Western nations humiliated the Qing rulers during the two Opium Wars in the 19th century. The last golden age of China as a great power is often considered to be the late 18th century, after the Qing empire’s ethnic Manchu rulers had expanded its geographic reach. Perhaps most telling, the Qianlong emperor forced George Macartney, the British envoy, to kneel in the imperial court in 1793.