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History With Chinese Characteristics

How China's Imagined Past Shapes Its Present

On November 15, 2012, the day he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping stood onstage at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, to reflect back on his country’s 5,000 years of history. After citing China’s “indelible contribution” to world civilization, Xi called for “the great revival of the Chinese nation.” And he acknowledged that others had “failed one time after another” to realize that goal. Implicit in Xi’s remarks was a promise: unlike his predecessors, he would not fall short. 

Xi’s narrative of rejuvenation has resonated deeply among today’s Chinese. It places the country not only at the center of the international system but also above it, casting the nation as one that inspires emulation by the force of its advanced culture and economic achievements. It also evokes historical memories of a time when China received tribute from the rest of the world, was a source of world-class innovation, and was a fearless seafaring power. And it implies that in the past, China did not need to use force: its virtue alone engendered deference from others. 

Xi is not the first contemporary Chinese leader to call for national revival. Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao all embraced the theme of rejuvenation or invigoration to remind the Chinese people of past glories in an attempt to bind them to modern China. Xi has, however, surpassed his predecessors in the sheer scale of his efforts to achieve the goal of national revival. He has put in motion a massive infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, which is designed to revive the ancient Silk Road and the maritime spice routes that flourished as early as the Han dynasty, thus reinforcing the claim of Chinese centrality. He has also articulated the idea of a “new type of great-power relations,” whereby China would enjoy the status of a global power on par with the United States. And he has revived the country’s centuries-old claims

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