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.
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.
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.
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.