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The Logic Behind "Chinese Modernization"
Explaining China's new political term that is likely to take hold
On Oct. 16, Xi Jinping delivered a report to the landmark 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and a political catchphrase less heard before carried noticeable weight in his speech, “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese path to modernization.” (both in Chinese 中国式现代化) He outlined the future CPC’s task as such:
“From this day forward, the central task of the CPC will be to lead the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in a concerted effort to realize the Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization.”
On the day of the opening session, China’s official news agency Xinhua published a headline article titled CPC Charts Course for Chinese Modernization as Key Congress Opens, and Global Times an editorial Chinese Modernization Will Broaden Horizon of Civilization. One week prior to the meeting, the explanatory articles on Chinese modernization hogged an entire page of the People’s Daily. By the look of it, the idea of “Chinese modernization” is likely to find its way into key policy platforms in the foreseeable future.
In the report to the congress, Xi specified the five features of Chinese modernization: huge population, common prosperity for all, material and cultural-ethical advancement, harmony between humanity and nature, and peaceful development.
First, a brief history of the term “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese path to modernization” prior to this meeting:
The term first surfaced on Oct. 29, 2020, when Xi Jinping made a speech at the 5th plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee. Xi said that China should “advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through a Chinese path to modernization.” 以中国式现代化推进中华民族伟大复兴
On July 1, 2021, Xi Jinping addressed a ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC: “As we have upheld and developed socialism with Chinese characteristics and driven coordinated progress in material, political, cultural-ethical, social, and ecological terms, we have pioneered a new and uniquely Chinese path to modernization, and created a new model for human advancement.” 我们坚持和发展中国特色社会主义，推动物质文明、政治文明、精神文明、社会文明、生态文明协调发展，创造了中国式现代化新道路，创造了人类文明新形态
On Nov. 12, 2021, the Communique of the 6th plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee was released: “They have produced a profound influence on the course of world history. The Party has led the people in pioneering a uniquely Chinese path to modernization, creating a new model for human advancement, and expanding the channels for developing countries to achieve modernization.” 党的百年奋斗深刻影响了世界历史进程，党领导人民成功走出中国式现代化道路，创造了人类文明新形态，拓展了发展中国家走向现代化的途径
On July 26-27, 2022, Xi Jinping made remarks at a study session of provincial and ministerial-level officials: “The modernization China is pursuing is the socialist modernization led by the CPC. The country should advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through a Chinese path to modernization.” 我们推进的现代化，是中国共产党领导的社会主义现代化，必须坚持以中国式现代化推进中华民族伟大复兴
To further expound on the logic behind this new jargon, Sinical China translates an excerpt from the article How Chinese Modernization Helps Solve Eight Problems Facing Human Society’s Development 中国式现代化破解人类发展八大难题. The article, written by Liu Lei with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was originally published in the Outlook Weekly《瞭望》this March. Let’s get it started.
How Chinese Modernization Helps Solve Eight Problems Facing Human Society’s Development
By the 1960s, the developed countries finished the process of the first modernization and built mature industrialized societies. They initiated the second modernization and made strides toward intellectual societies. At the same time, the developing nations, falling behind the first wave, are facing the dire challenge of promoting two modernizations all at once.
For a long time, the early adopters in the West prized themselves as models for latecomers or the beacon of human development. Many in the developing world also anchored their hope in blindly copying Western models. Stranded by historic conditions, domestic contexts, and external environments, they often find themselves locked in puzzles and traps. Over 20 years into the 21st century, global economic growth became sluggish, as internal social cleavages surged in many countries and the international situation grew turbulent. It now becomes a Herculean task to modernize a developing country.
In stark contrast, China’s modernization process is thriving. As the world’s second-biggest economy, China has managed the historic stunt to eradicate absolute poverty, and has accomplished the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects. It is on its way to forge a modern socialist nation. Chinese modernization, solving so many problems facing humanity’s development, provides new options for a wider audience.
1. Peaceful Development
The first problem facing human society’s development is the “blood and fire” logic, by which Western powers achieved modernization over the past 300 years. They followed this logic to achieve the primitive accumulation of capital, outgoing expansion of raw materials and commodity markets, and exploitative oppression back home. Aggression and colonization have been integral to the foundation and means of Western modernization. It still constitutes the nature of the relationship between some developed and developing countries today.
The second problem facing human society’s development is Western powers’ dominance over the international order. At present, in light of the constraints of today’s international norms, the marriage of state modernization and violence has become rather subtle. Nevertheless, in order to keep the edge in the modernization process, Western major powers still rely on their long-established clout to exert economic manipulation and political intervention in the global south. Some developed nations today have become synonymous with “bullyism” and “unilateralism.”
The dark side of West-led modernization extends to today’s world, and it is fundamentally the product of the capital-oriented logic. The law of the jungle has helped boost the modernization process of the leading Western countries, but it has become an obstacle for others to follow suit.
For Chinese modernization, peaceful development is the fundamental principle. There are both historical origins and contingent demands to uphold this principle, which also conforms to the overall trend and objective laws of human society’s development.
Over the century prior to the founding of the people’s republic, the Chinese nation had been in the struggle for national independence and liberation. The efforts to modernize China walked a tortuous path. It made the Chinese people realize that modernization is impossible without a peaceful environment.
After the Communist Party of China took national power in 1949, the country entered a new historic stage of modernization. China creatively proposed the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” and hailed it as the guiding principle for China’s interaction with the world. Since the reform and opening-up drive in the late 1970s, China aligned its own well-being with the global atmosphere of “peace and development,” and made marvelous accomplishments through the country’s steady modernization drive. Today, faced with rising uncertainties worldwide, China sticks to the concept of global governance based on extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, and put forward the initiative to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
Here is the iron rule the Chinese grow to realize: Peace is the precondition for development, and development is the guarantee for peace. We have to strive for a peaceful international environment to develop ourselves, and promote world peace through our own development. Facing the profound global changes unseen in a century, Chinese modernization, built on the basis of a community with a shared future for mankind, provides new inspiration for the development of human society.
2. Opening-up and Cooperation
The third problem facing human society’s development is the anti-globalization drive, featured by protectionism and barriers to the free flow of resource elements.
China’s answer to this problem is to give globalization another push. China actively pushed a strategy of comprehensive opening-up, and helped initiate a new round of globalization including the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). These measures are poised to build a new environment for economic development that is open, inclusive, universally profitable, balanced, and mutually beneficial.
For Chinese modernization, opening-up and cooperation are crucial conditions. One of the most heart-wrenching lessons from modern Chinese history is that a nation’s fortune can be lost to a closing-up policy. The reform and opening-up policy, on the other hand, has become the key measure that altered the fate of contemporary China. Forty years into this policy, China has grasped the opportunities of development in the course of globalization, which transformed into stunning report cards of economic growth, sci-tech development, comprehensive strength, and public welfare. The nation realizes that there will be no Chinese path to modernization without reform and opening-up.
China’s modernization in the past two hundred years is two-fold. It started from China's passive embroilment, and later became an active pursuit. It began with a country forced open, and now turned out a nation taking the initiative. China’s reform and opening-up has withstood the test of time. Chinese modernization in the future will embrace the world with a more active and open mindset. This is the historical choice of the Chinese people, and also a value proposition that conforms to human society’s development.
The fourth problem facing human society’s development is the eroding trust in the international community that stands in the way of cooperation. Opening-up and cooperation should be based on mutual respect and trust. However, with the emergence of unilateralism, populism and anti-globalization drive, frictions in global trade intensified, and geopolitical games escalated.
The "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" China put forward in the 1950s has been followed through till this day. It entails mutual respect for territorial sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. This idea of international interactions transcends ideologies, social systems, history and culture. Today, China still places mutual respect and trust at the top of its principles for international exchange, and strives to safeguard multilateralism and promote reforms in global governance. It is set to build a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, justice and win-win cooperation.
3. Innovation and Coordination
The fifth problem facing human society’s development is the simple copycat model adopted by many developing countries, which always put them a few steps behind with the modernization process controlled by others. History manifests that innovation is the force behind the global modernization process, and that it presents strategic opportunities for countries to catch or surpass the front runners.
For Chinese modernization, innovation and coordination constitute the fundamental path to modernization. China should adhere to the core position of innovation in the overall modernization process.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it took China only a few decades to cover the modernization process that Western countries spent more than 200 years accomplishing. One of the reasons for China’s success is its resolve to innovate and self-reform.
Chinese modernization knits together theoretical, institutional, technological, and cultural innovations to build a comprehensive national innovation system. The powerful driving force of innovation has successfully prompted Chinese modernization to achieve a historic leap, and has also shed light on human society’s development.
The sixth problem facing human society’s development is the single-dimensional, imbalanced modernization paradigm that often proves to be unsustainable. It can be counterproductive for a country to achieve only economic or political modernization. Even modernized nations might suffer a decline from the model of lopsided development.
The history of modernization, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, indicates that catching up with the developed world through “leapfrog” will inevitably be followed by drastic social upheavals. Under similar circumstances, a smooth transformation requires overall coordination with clear focus.
Since the Opium War in 1840, China's modernization has seen an array of failed efforts represented by the Self-Strengthening Movement, the Hundred Days’ Reform, the 1911 Revolution, and the New Culture Movement. However, renovation in a single dimension of only objects or institutions, or thoughts proved insufficient. It can’t single-handedly change the tragic fate of the country that suffered foreign aggression and intransigent weakness.
After the CPC took power in 1949, the nation has been exploring new paths to modernization. There was once the idea of “Four Modernizations,”四个现代化 referring to industry, agriculture, national defense, and sci-tech. Now it has developed into the “Five-Sphere Integrated Plan”五位一体 that incorporates economic, political, cultural, social and ecological development. Chinese modernization not only takes into account the coordinated development of all aspects horizontally, but also comprehensively balances the development vertically. It falls in this category to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas, between coastal and inland regions, and between the rich and the poor.
4. Stability and Unity
The seventh problem facing human society’s development is the political instability and crises that tend to wreak havoc on the process of modernization.
Globally, modernization tends to gain more ground during the time of political stability than social turmoil, despite the levels of industrialization of individual countries and regions.
Stability is a time-tested way to grow a healthy nation while instability serves as a bane of modernization throughout human history. Stability is not only a bedrock upon which modernization is built but also one of its core objectives.
Political stability reigns supreme over all others.
Over a century of political and social turmoil had caused the process of China’s modernization to stagnate, but the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for China’s historic achievements in modernizing a country of over a billion people. In the past four decades, China has remained steadfast and proactive in dealing with the ever-changing global environment and challenges. By adopting the strategy of placing stability above all else, the smooth running of the country’s modernization process was ensured. This experience is one of the great contributions China has made to the world.
The eighth problem facing human society’s development is the threats to stability and modernization posed by conflicts across different ethnicities, cultures or religious faiths.
Nowadays, the scourge of ethnic, racial and religious conflicts shows no sign of abating in some parts of the world, causing social chaos, pummeling the economy and displacing millions. And the contagion of internal instability within a country is prone to spread across the world, creating international crises.
The past and present have taught us that for all the multi-ethnic countries, ethnic issues would only stand in the way of modernization were they not to be tackled as a matter of priority.
Since ancient times, China has been multi-ethnical as a result of the diversity of its environment. Different ethnic cultures have communicated and integrated with each other, constituting a legacy shared by the Chinese nation that has brought into being a splendid Chinese culture. For over 70 years since the founding of People’s Republic of China, respect for and protection of freedom of religious belief has been a basic and long-term national policy of the Chinese government.
The CPC has worked to uphold and improve the system of regional ethnic autonomy, followed a correct and uniquely Chinese path to dealing with ethnic affairs, and made fostering “a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation” the main task in its work on ethnic affairs.
5. China’s Answer to Modernization
Combing through the history of China’s efforts to modernize and what has the country achieved against the backdrop of global uncertainties, it is clear that the Chinese modernization has shown the following traits: peaceful development, openness and cooperation, innovation and coordination, and stability and unity.
It took the West a long time to finish transforming from a “traditional” or “pre-modern” society to a “modern” one. It was a self-evolving process. For developing countries to catch up with their level of development, the process has to be strategically designed to ensure that it plays out over a much shorter time span.
History has shown time and again that blindly copying the west is not the right way forward. Only by factoring in multiple variables including global norms and their own domestic realities can the developing nations find the most optimal course to achieve modernization.
The success of China in finding its own style of modernization has set an example for the world of developing nations to follow.
The vicissitude of the past 200 years has only inspired many to explore China’s unique path to modernization. From standing up as a proud new nation in 1949 to making great strides in modernizing a country with a massive population, China has achieved an endless string of awe-inspiring achievements that garner worldwide admiration in the past 70 years. [END]
Subscribe to Sinical China for more original pieces to help you read Chinese news between the lines. Xu Zeyu, founder of Sinical China, is a senior correspondent with Xinhua News Agency, China’s official newswire. Follow him on Twitter @XuZeyu_Philip
Disclaimer: The published pieces in Sinical China reflect only the personal opinions of the authors, and shall NOT be taken as Xinhua News Agency’s stance or perception.