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Will “Chinese Path to Modernization” Lead to Global Divergence?
How China’s call for home-grown development model helps further multipolar order
As the Soviet flag fell down over the Kremlin, and the world scrambled to emulate the “final form of human government” incarnated in the Western liberal democracy, John Fairbank, a leading Harvard historian of China, defied the clamoring “end-of-history” narrative and opined that “no foreign model could fit the Chinese situation.” He believed “the creative Chinese people would have to work out their salvation in their own way.”
Now, that way has been worked out, as Beijing formally promulgated an idea known as the “Chinese path to modernization” in a series of recent key political events. The concept was not only used to define China’s success story in the past decades, but also constitutes a guiding platform to navigate the country’s development for many years to come.
It is a watershed moment. The world’s second biggest economy openly claims its own model of modernization helps “the exploration of a better social system for humanity.” It is set to inspire the developing world to probe for their own development paths beyond a given yardstick.
But it is also a moment that invites unwarranted hostility, as Washington strives to resurrect a new iron curtain. The increased popularity of this new political catchphrase “Chinese path to modernization” has been perceived by many as Beijing’s attempt to actively upend the Western supremacy in discourse power and, by extension, a pax-Americana global order. But will this path really lead to a global divergence? Could the world be divided into two camps taking competing paths of development again?
PATH OF ONE’S OWN
History rhymes, but it might not repeat itself. Tempting as it is to draw a parallel between today’s geopolitical disposition with a cold-war style bipolar rivalry, the ideas Beijing advances in the name of the “Chinese path to modernization” are much more than an antithesis to the Washington Consensus. China’s new way is set to break through the entire paradigm of global confrontations between value-based blocs.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration hosted another high-selective preaching session dubbed as a “Summit for Democracy.” It was part of Washington’s scheme to dig its heels deeper in the global moral high ground. To contain America’s self-designated opponents, the U.S. urged its value-based allies in Europe to close ranks, and those in Asia to expand military connections. Western leaders even started to flirt with the idea of a “global NATO.” Such collective coercion amounts to what Washington understands as “multilateral efforts” to enforce its own interpretations of the international norms.
This is where Beijing seems to differ. Beijing champions a multilateral world that hinges upon the principle of independent choice and non-alignment. Expanding on China’s answer to modernization, Xi Jinping introduced the Global Civilization Initiative to leaders of world political parties at a meeting this March, calling for respect for the diversity of civilizations. Instead of pushing others to copy China’s own model altogether, Xi reiterated, “it is the people of a country that are in the best position to tell what kind of modernization best suits them.”
Such statements are reminiscent of some other moments when China’s approach was laid out as a viable alternative. In 2004, Joshua Cooper Ramo coined the term “Beijing Consensus,” which was described as a development strategy that focuses on innovative reforms. And after the global financial tsunami in 2008, the “China Model” was widely discussed as a potential ecumenical cure for the neo-liberal institutional failures. Beijing, however, never officially endorsed a China pattern that exhibits universal values, until the promulgation of the “Chinese path to modernization.”
Beijing now unequivocally rejects the narrative of the linear evolution of human societies. And more importantly, The concept of a China-style modernization has provided damning proof to the developing world that an endogenous approach to modernize could actually work.
Actively taking part in the globalization process, China never allowed itself to jerk a neo-liberal free fall, but pushed experimental policy reforms to induce incremental changes. As the biggest trading partner of over 120 countries and regions, China has now grown to be the only country in the world to obtain all the industrial categories. The largest economy second only to the U.S. now builds the world’s longest high-speed rail, left footprints on the far side of the moon, and eradicated absolute poverty in a country of 1.4 billion people.
The exemplary effect is staggering. China’s success encouraged more developing nations to realize they are actually entitled to experiment its own model of development. Indonesia, a country that is predicted by the IMF to be one of the fastest-growing top-20 economies in 2023, vehemently criticized the neo-liberal regime for entrapping the global south, and the largest ASEAN nation has hewed to its own vision to grow the economy. Sticking to its priority on stability and economic growth, Rwanda promoted a nationwide reconciliation in the wake of the genocide, and created a rare economic miracle on the African continent.
And as a rising economic behemoth, Beijing has long shunned military alliances. Instead, China forges an array of partnerships regardless of their cultural landscapes or political bents. This collaboration method encourages the underdeveloped to probe their own modernization pattern as China has done. As Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said, “Our partnership with China is not a partnership based on China telling us what we need; it is a partnership of friends working together to meet Kenya’s social-economic agenda.”
China’s consensus-based approach poses as a stark contrast to Washington’s naval gazing and virtue signaling. And more countries have started to wonder whether the Western understanding of the world, along with the hierarchical international order built upon it, is justified. The Chilean President Gabriel Boric Font’s words reflect a widely shared sentiment: “we have to stop creating organizations based on the ideology of the governments of the day.” As the ideological fault line becomes less recognized, a multipolar world is in the making.
But is it necessarily bad news for the U.S. that China helps further deepen the trend of multupolarization?
The thing is, a unipolar order no longer exists, though the Biden administration remains committed to resurrect one, as is argued by Stephen Walt in a recent article. Besides China, emerging economies in other parts of the world have grown in relative strength, and also become increasingly weary of an international regime that underrates their roles. Multilateral mechanisms outside the Western “garden” like BRICS are enrolling more earnest members that are determined to raise their voice. The Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula called for a global order “that is peaceful and based in dialogue, multilateralism, and multipolarity.” Many kindred spirits are found in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even Europe.
Also, the U.S. has been too overstretched for a unipolar system, and it fails on many fronts to provide the public good expected of a benevolent overlord. Its hegemonic clout was squandered on two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of them ended in a Saigon-esque fiasco. And the other didn’t deliver peace and democracy as promised, but incited popular violence and exacerbated a regional cold war between Tehran and Riyadh. Instead, an unlikely Saudi-Iran detente was achieved through Beijing’s brokerage, and the fact that this Gordian Knot was untied without Washington’s involvement has let the cat totally out of the bag: in the Middle East, and maybe many other parts of the world, America’s meddling is part of the problem, not its solution.
The ascent of a multipolar order is inevitable, whether Washington likes it or not. And as the global power dynamic shifts towards it, the world will come to accept different kinds of governance models that are so diverse to the point where no one in particular can assuredly claim to be the orthodoxy. The “Chinese path to modernization” might just inspire a stabilizing force in the wake of the American hegemony.
First, this key policy platform, which is likely to take hold for years to come, will keep China a status-quo power. As is enshrined as one of the five pillars of the “Chinese path to modernization,” peaceful development has been, and will still be Beijing’s overarching principle in dealing with foreign affairs. Over the past decades, China has distanced itself from military adventures or any form of collective security pacts. Peace is the prerequisite for China’s economic miracle, as has been recognized by generations of Chinese leaders. President Xi lately reaffirmed the country’s commitment by saying: “No matter what level of development China achieves, it will never seek hegemony or expansion.” This means, not only China champions a multipolar order, but also prefers a peaceful evolution in that direction, as opposed to many power transitions in history that ended in apocalyptic showdowns.
Second, this China model sticks to an opening-up policy. China is expected to account for one-third of global economic growth in 2023, said Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund. “China’s economy is important not only for itself, but for the world.” It would be the worst-case scenario for the world if Beijing escalates the trade war Washington stoked up in the past five years into a protectionist national strategy. Luckily, the key document that prescribes the “Chinese path to modernization” underlines a proactive strategy of opening up. This will help facilitate the free flow of goods, capital, information and other elements to spur up the post-Covid global economic recovery. With the rebound of the cross-national interdependence, the world is less likely to be carved up into factional camps that poison the multipolarization process.
Third, the idea Beijing promotes will make it an even more active provider of public good. China encourages diversity, but a smooth transition towards diversity needs to be nurtured. It is estimated that emerging economies need US$66 trillion for infrastructure investment by 2030. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already taken the lead in the global infrastructure drive over the past ten years, and the total value of the related projects is reported to reach US$4.3 trillion by 2020. The ambitious plan, along with new global governance institutions like the AIIB and New Development Bank, is aimed to alter the global division of labor that used to largely favor the developed world. And China’s non-interventionist approach will help nourish various development models applied to each individual country’s context during the process of a global modernization.
For the U.S., which is gradually losing its grip on hegemony, and for the world, the “Chinese path to modernization” may prove to be the least confrontational and the most compatible with the current international regime, among many others that are about to arise. China’s own choice of development is not creating a divergence in the world, but expediting a workable multipolar order after hegemony.
RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY
However, multipolarity is a reality the U.S. is unready to acknowledge and reluctant to adapt to. Having been on top of the pyramid for too long, political elites in Washington have talked themselves into the self-fulfilling prophecy of the City upon a Hill. To make sense of America’s losing mandate, the majority of them have come to mistaken a global trend towards multipolarity for the alleged China threat, which has ironically become the last vestige of bipartisan consensus in today’s highly polarized U.S. politics.
The antagonism translates into actions. From trade war to technology blockade, and to the recent persecution of TikTok, Washington continues to expand the definition of national security and use it to amplify the paranoia about China. Same is the case for the White House’s positioning of China in the U.S. national strategy. While China was still deemed a “stakeholder” twenty years ago, it is now described as a “strategic competitor” and “challenge to the rules-based international order.” In the meantime, conspiracy theories that the idea of multipolarity has been China’s scheme to subvert the U.S.-dominated global system have also been pushed to the foreground. For the U.S. political class, left or right, China’s peaceful rise on its own terms is simply a narrative beyond the realm of possibility.
Such an ill-conceived notion is now likely to have fatal outcomes. The U.S. senior officials and generals started to howl a war with Beijing in a matter of years. The hysteria has been further ratcheted up by the mainstream media through hyperbolic misrepresentation of China’s attitude towards war. The hawkish posture, which is pushing the world’s two largest military powers to the brink of conflict, is more of a Freudian answer to America’s fear of a multipolar world at the expense of its hegemony than its fear of China.
Some twenty years ago, Condoleezza Rice proudly claimed that the U.S. was “on the right side of history,” on the ground that the American interest could be promoted through multilateral efforts. As is manifested by China’s new way, however, it occurs to many that history has not ended and a multipolar world is called for on top of multilateralism. It now takes courage and wisdom for American policymakers to take the right side of history on its new chapter.
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.
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