WHAT DOES China want? As the country’s remarkable rise continues and as Beijing’s interests seem to clash more frequently with those of its neighbors and the United States, the answer grows ever more important for American policy makers. Recently, a civilian analyst at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii sought to shed light on the issue. The analyst, Timothy R. Heath, braved the notoriously turgid prose in Chinese official documents and identified the stated “desired end state” for the country. It is wrapped up in the term “national rejuvenation.”
This end state is codified in the work of incoming Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping, the successor of Hu Jintao, and in recent editions of the Chinese constitution. In the near term, according to authoritative CCP documents, achieving national rejuvenation will require that China assuage international concerns about its rise while strengthening its sovereignty over disputed areas on land and at sea. This may explain the apparent contradiction, a source of consternation in the West, between Beijing’s claim to be pursuing “peaceful development” and its assertive foreign-policy behavior—for instance, in the East and South China Seas. But the question of what national rejuvenation means over the longer term goes deeper—and remains unanswered.
Even in the absence of an official explanation from the CCP, it is at least possible to consider the origins and evolution of the term. Despite its currency today, national rejuvenation is not an invention of the party. Its pedigree in China actually dates back to the formative period of Chinese nationalism, from the latter stages of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. But it was repopularized by Premier Zhao Ziyang at the Thirteenth Party Congress under Deng Xiaoping in 1987. It then became a watchword during the tenures of Deng’s two successors as CCP general secretary, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. As the Harvard historian Mark Elliott has pointed out, use of the term increased dramatically, both in official party language and in the popular culture, over the last decade, starting in 2001 when Jiang declared that the party was leading the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” There followed a popular CCTV television series, a three-volume book and a “song-and-dance epic” at the National Theater, all called the “Road to Rejuvenation.” In March 2011, a permanent exhibit with the same name opened at the National Museum of China in Beijing. The preface to the exhibit concludes, “Today, the Chinese nation is standing firm in the east, facing a brilliant future of great rejuvenation. The long-cherished dream and aspiration of the Chinese people will surely come to reality.” In the course of a single 2011 speech marking the one hundredth anniversary of the 1911 Chinese revolution, Hu mentioned rejuvenation twenty-three times. It was Chinese nationalists who took power following that revolution, and understanding their worldview turns out to be a critical requirement in order to fill out the picture of national rejuvenation.
Up to now, Chinese nationalism has been invoked generically to explain China’s conduct in territorial and resource disputes, as well as in international forums such as climate-change negotiations. Its historical roots and content, however, have seldom been discussed. Instead, nationalism is treated as an abstract force that compels CCP elites to lash out against, for example, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam or the United States. It also compels these Chinese elites to stand tough in the face of foreign complaints about China’s behavior. But what, specifically, do today’s Chinese nationalists believe? Is Chinese nationalism a matter of pride in China’s achievements, and therefore inwardly focused? Or is it other-directed, necessarily involving comparisons with other states? What does Chinese nationalism say about where China is today and where it is going?
TO ADDRESS these questions, it is necessary to understand the links between contemporary Chinese nationalism and the work of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Chinese thinkers who sought to restore their country to greatness after a series of devastating defeats in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. The perspective of these pioneering Chinese nationalists was in turn shaped by their contact with Japanese nationalism, itself a product of Japan’s exposure to nineteenth-century European thought, especially social Darwinism. Today’s Chinese nationalism still bears the hallmarks of illiberal imperial Japanese and European worldviews, and this is likely not only to generate turbulence in China’s external relations but also to exacerbate challenges for the CCP at home.
Without this critical historical context, extreme interpretations of today’s Chinese nationalism threaten to create more confusion than understanding. One such interpretation, articulated by prominent Japanese and Indian sources, among others, recalls the Nazi German quest for lebensraum. China is said to be pursuing its own lebensraum policy, driven by a view of the superiority of the Chinese race. “Since the 1980s, China’s military strategy has rested on the concept of a ‘strategic frontier,’” said Japan’s former prime minister and current leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe, in an address at a Washington think tank in October 2010. He continued: