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.
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The Chinese Communist Party took power with violence and continued to consolidate and centralize national political power in a fashion consistent with China’s own imperial tradition. Under its absolute rule, confronted by embargos from almost the entire world, the Chinese nation paid an enormous price, in famine and civil strife, yet achieved at last an unchallenged national independence of a truly sovereign state within the Western established international order. Thirty years after the founding of the People’s Republic, China began in 1979 its current phase of development. In merely 32 years, it has become the second-largest economy in the world. On its ancient land run the world’s fastest computer and most rapid train.Skip to next paragraph
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No doubt China’s modernization received enormous Western influence. Yet its essence is not and cannot be modernism. In today’s China, the individual remains part of the collective and by no means the independent and basic unit of society. Political power is not divided and balanced but centralized under a single political authority. A market economy adapted from the West is delivering efficient allocation of resources and high rates of growth and has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Yet, it is pointedly not capitalism. Ordinary Chinese people enjoy as wide a range of personal liberties as those anywhere in the Western world. But those with political aspirations contrary to the collective objectives of the state and society are severely constrained, even repressed.
Modern vs. modernism
Language is life. Words contextualize our world and lend it meaning. The word “modern” is translated into Chinese as Xiandai – which simply means “the current generation.” Xiandai does not and can not carry the rich meaning inherent to the word “modern.” And Xiandaihua – modernization – carries only material meaning. Xiandaihua has been the overwhelming objective of the Chinese nation. One of the founding fathers of the People’s Republic, Premier Zhou Enlai, announced to the Chinese people at the end of the tragic Cultural Revolution that the four modernizations (Xiandaihua) were China’s national aspirations: modernizations of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. These by no means add up to modernism.
Any narrative, any model, that could embody the fundamental organizing principles of human affairs can only be vague in its formative stages. But this narrative sounds hollow if it has no basis in reality. Most successful societies construct their narratives backward: Theorists concoct explanations for the achieved successes of these societies.
Understanding China's story
For those, both in China and abroad, who want to give meaning to China’s revolutionary transformation in the last three decades, getting the China story right is no easy task. Though China’s rise is still not a foregone conclusion, its success to date is beyond dispute. China’s example is too big to ignore, and when we understand how Chinese modernization differs fundamentally from that in the West, it could provide the needed proof that modernism is no longer the only viable route to modernization. If not modernism, then what is China’s story?
At the moment, no one has the answer. But for those gathered for the centennial celebration of Tsinghua and those watching China’s rise from afar with intellectual fascination, this is perhaps an opportune time to begin this process of understanding.
Eric Li is founder and managing director of a leading venture capital firm in Shanghai and a doctoral candidate at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs. The following was adapted from his opening remarks at the Tsinghua Centennial China Model Forum and translated from Chinese by the author.