The idea of modernization in China as a “Chinese style” of modernization dates back to 1979 and the start of economic reforms. Meeting with foreign experts attending a seminar on science and technology policy in Beijing in 1983, Deng Xiaoping reportedly told them: “The modernization we are doing is Chinese-style modernization. The socialism we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
By this time, the second half of Deng’s statement had already been codified in official CCP discourse as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义), perhaps the most important CCP catchphrase of the reform era (included even today Xi Jinping’s personal legacy phrase). In his opening remarks to the 12th National Congress of the CCP in early September 1982, Deng had said that “taking our own path and building socialism with Chinese characteristics” was the way forward for China.
However, the first half of Deng’s statement, “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式的现代化), which he had mentioned in his March 1979 speech on the “Four Basic Principles,” never became a standalone phrase in its own right — not until Xi Jinping appropriated the idea in 2021 to describe a vision of modernization he wished to define as distinct from Deng’s “Four Modernizations” (四个现代化), which focused on the initial economic goals of strengthening agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology as a means of developing the Chinese economy and moving the country toward a “moderately prosperous society.”
While Deng’s idea of “Chinese-style modernization” was broadly about introducing new approaches while accommodating the country’s national circumstances (国情), Xi Jinping’s is much bolder, an assertion of the uniqueness, and even superiority, of China’s approach to development as opposed to that of the West.
The notion of “Chinese-style modernization” first appeared consistently in the CCP discourse beginning in April 2021, when the People’s Daily newspaper launched a series of articles under the theme of “Dissecting Chinese-Style Modernization” (解析中国式现代化), with weekly installments throughout the month, and other Party-run media followed suit.
According to the Editor’s Note for the first installment of the People’s Daily series:
Our modernization has features common to the modernizations of all countries but also has unique Chinese characteristics based on national conditions, a Chinese-style modernization. The modernization we want to achieve is a modernization with a huge population, a modernization with common prosperity for all people, a modernization with the coordination of material and spiritual civilization, a modernization with the harmonious coexistence of man and nature, and a modernization on the road of peaceful development.
This five-point elaboration of “Chinese-style modernization” — which would eventually be codified around the 2022 CCP National Congress as “five characteristics” (五个特征) and “nine basic demands” (九个本质要求) — came several weeks after the 2021 National People’s Congress, where a key theme had been the need for “common prosperity” (共同富裕).
“Common prosperity,” which in the Xi era has become synonymous with efforts to curtail excessive wealth, crack down on monopoly behavior, address income inequality, and promote “people-centered development,” is regarded as a core component of the broader notion of “Chinese-style modernization.”
It is also used — based on the assumption that China’s development takes a people-centered approach to shared welfare — to make the case that “Chinese-style modernization” is fundamentally distinct from developments in the West. As Zhang Zhanbin (张占斌), a scholar from the official Central Party School, wrote in the People’s Daily in October 2021, understanding the role of “common prosperity” in the “Chinese-style modernization” is crucial to “clearly recognizing the major differences between Chinese-style modernization and the Western modernization path.”
At its base, this claim to distinction is a claim to political legitimacy, and it is therefore hardly a surprise that the first of the so-called “nine basic demands” in the current formulation of “Chinese-style modernization” is “adhering to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” (坚持中国共产党领导). As Zhang Zhanbin wrote in 2021, “The leadership of the Party is the unique political advantage of the new path of Chinese-style modernization.”
Prior to its inclusion in Xi Jinping’s political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October 2022, where it appeared a total of 11 times, “Chinese-style modernization” was featured most prominently in the resolution on CCP history introduced in November 2021 at the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP: Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议). The document, essentially a grand narrative of a century of CCP history that portrayed Xi Jinping and his deeds as a culmination (See also CMP’s “Writing the Future into History”), defined “Chinese-style modernization” as driving forward the larger goal of the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” (中华民族伟大复兴).
The Sixth Plenum was a prelude to the 20th National Congress of the CCP and Xi Jinping’s eventual third term as general secretary of the Party. At the 20th National Congress, “Chinese-style modernization” was codified as follows, with “five characteristics” and “nine basic demands”:
By 2023, “Chinese-style modernization” had become a central catchphrase to describe the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s program for development. It was featured strongly as the first National People’s Congress of Xi’s third term opened on March 4, 2023.
On the eve of the NPC, the official nightly newscast Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) opened with an immediate mention of “Chinese-style modernization,” noting that Xi Jinping had deemed it “an important theoretical innovation emerging from the 20th National Congress of the CCP.”