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Global Viewpoint

How China broke the West's monopoly on modernization

For nearly 300 years, the European Enlightenment was the source of change for mankind. Then came China. In 32 years, it has become the second-largest economy in the world. China's examples shows that Western-style modernism is no longer the only viable route to modernization.

By Eric Li / April 28, 2011


This week, Tsinghua University, China’s foremost institution of higher education, celebrates its centennial. Founded in 1911 in deep national humiliation, Tsinghua University was initially funded by the infamous Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship, which was essentially war reparations China paid to the United States.

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Since then, Tsinghua has epitomized the Chinese experience of modernization for an entire century. Its destiny has been inextricably linked to that of the Chinese nation. It occupies a central place in the collective Chinese consciousness. Many Chinese leaders, intellectuals, and even revolutionaries began their quest for national redemption from these tree-lined grounds near the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, burned to the ground by the Anglo-French forces led by Lord Elgin. Chinese President Hu Jintao, himself a graduate, opened the festivities last week for this event loaded with political and historic significance.

Of course, the days when China was a helpless prey of great Western powers are long gone. Today, it is viewed as a contender for global leadership in the future. As China’s emergence shakes the core of the international system as we know it, Tsinghua’s centennial offers an opportunity for reflection.

Many see China’s rise in political, economic, and military terms. But the Chinese renaissance is in its essence a moral and intellectual challenge to the modern world. For nearly 300 years, the European Enlightenment was the intellectual and moral source of change, if not legitimacy, for mankind. Yet, the tidal wave of Westernization also brought about, along with the glory of economic and technological transformation, confusion, defeatism, and even catastrophe to non-Western civilizations. The product of the Enlightenment, modernism – centered as it is on individualism, rights, and science – was a unique Western cultural experience.

To be sure, modernism had its illustrious intellectual ancestry. Platonism began the West’s pursuit of abstract truth from the times of ancient Greece. The first division of Christianity and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire more than 1,500 years ago put the West on the road of separated political and religious authorities. The consolidation of power by the landed aristocracy, legalized by the Magna Carta, made balance of power a unique characteristic within Western political structure and philosophy. The second division of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, unintentionally contributed to making the individual the sovereign and basic unit of society.

All of these historic and cultural developments culminated during the Enlightenment and created the unstoppable meta-narrative – modernism. Modernism facilitated the development of science and the industrial revolution and led to the greatest advancement of material power in the history of man – modernization.

The values of Western modernism

The individual, conceived as rational and endowed with God-given rights, sits at the center of the value system of modernism. These individuals, combined with the cultural traditions of their homelands, created the nation-state. Balance of power and electoral democracy became the defining political characteristics of these nation-states. The ownership of private property formed their social and economic foundation – what we now call capitalism.

Confronted with the rapid and aggressive expansion of these nation-states newly empowered by industrialization, almost all non-Western civilizations, including China, attempted to import the political, social, and economic values of modernism to recreate their own cultures in order to achieve modernization. For over a century or longer, modernism was seen as the only route to modernization. Even non-liberal experiments such as Soviet Communism were essentially (though fundamentally flawed) derivatives of modernism.

As modernism spread around the world, the vast developing world, divided, violent, weak, impoverished, but rich in natural and human resources, was nothing but a recipient of Western-oriented prescriptions of modernization. For so many years and in so many countries, the ideological hegemony of modernism was unchallenged and the desirable consequences of modernization through modernism unquestioned.

Then came China.

China's struggle to modernize

In the same year of Tsinghua’s founding, the Xinhai Revolution launched China’s attempt to import and grow modernism on its ancient soil. Two generations toiled and bled only to see their country fall deeper into the abyss of national weakness, civil and foreign wars, and the unbearable sufferings of its people. Then in 1949, the Chinese nation chose a different path.

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