As President Xi Jinping took office in March 2013, China watchers in America did not yet know what to make of him. China’s hawks admired him, but the prevailing sentiment among Western observers was that Xi, a rather harmless-looking man of sixty with thick black hair and a genial smile, was a Gorbachev-like reformer intent on displacing China’s old guard and finally realizing these observers’ long-held conviction that China would become the free market-style democracy of their dreams. But Xi soon demonstrated that he had a dream of his own—one of a resurgent China that would reclaim its rightful place atop the global hierarchy. This has been a Communist Party ambition since Mao took power in 1949, the date commonly understood by China’s leaders as the beginning of the Hundred-Year Marathon. President Xi had picked up a slogan from the hawks, fuxing zhi lu, which roughly means “the road to renewal.” An expression confined to the nationalistic fringe had become the new president’s signature issue. It would not be long before the impli- cations became visible.
On the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square stands a ten-story obelisk, built on Mao’s orders in 1949. Official tour guides, licensed and monitored by China’s government, tend not to take foreigners to it. Even if Western- ers do find their way there, they likely won’t understand what it depicts, since the site does not offer English translations of the Chinese charac- ters etched in marble and granite. And yet the obelisk spells out the thinking that has governed the Marathon from the beginning.
The mammoth object is described online, rather generically, as a “Monument to the People’s Heroes.”1 What the monument actually sig- nifies is the airing of China’s grievances, which are perceived to be the products of a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western powers, beginning in 1839 with the First Opium War, when the Royal Navy laid waste to Chinese ports over a trade dispute with the Qing dynasty. The text and carved images on the monument describe the subsequent one hundred years of Chinese history—at least as the Communist govern- ment sees it—as a time of popular resistance, Western occupation, and guerrilla warfare that culminated in the triumphant ascension of Chair- man Mao Zedong in 1949 to end China’s humiliations by the West.