In the Euro-American context, “development” is commonly understood as a multidimensional socio-economic process with political, economic, social, environmental and cultural dimensions. In this regard, the political dimension (in particular, democracy) is seen as essential to realizing the others, which is why development cooperation emphasizes good governance, respect for human rights and corruption prevention, often making respective efforts by recipients a condition for aid. The Chinese discourse views “development” primarily as a process of technology-centered “modernization.” “Economic development” by means of investment in transport, energy and digital infrastructure construction, trade-related infrastructure, production capacities and innovative technology is thought to go hand-in-hand with “social development.” “Economic and social development” are seen as the necessary precondition for both improving the “people’s livelihood” – a term that refers to education, medical and health services, and public welfare facilities – and for “green development,” to be achieved through technological innovation. China criticizes Western donor countries for making improvements in good governance, anti-corruption efforts and human rights a condition for development assistance, arguing that these aspects should not be put above development issues on the economic and technical level, such as infrastructure building or industrial and agricultural development.
China therefore rejects the conditionality approach and argues that donors should respect the developing countries’ “right to independently choose their development path” and focus on “strengthening the capacity for independent development.” As a process, development should be “self-reliant” (自力更生, literally translated as: “regeneration through one’s own efforts”) and “independent.”
The concept of development as technology-led modernization can be traced back to Sun Yat-sen, since when has been perceived as a means to overcome the “underdevelopment” and “backwardness” that caused China to lose the Opium Wars. Following the Bandung Conference of 1955, China’s premier and foreign minister Zhou Enlai argued that China considered economic independence to be a prerequisite for political independence. Therefore, while focusing on its own development, China would also provide assistance to other developing countries – implying that helping the latter in their economic development would foster their political independence from the US-led capitalist bloc. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao Zedong as the paramount leader of the CCP, declared that China’s development required “Four Modernizations” – in agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology. Shortly afterwards, the human rights activist Wei Jingsheng wrote an essay displayed on the democracy wall in Beijing, calling on the CCP to add “democracy” as a “Fifth Modernization”, for which he was arrested and later exiled to the US.
Under Xi Jinping, development has become linked to the “two centenary goals”: the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021, at which point China should have become a “moderately well-off society”; and the centenary of the founding of the PRC in 2049, at which point China should have achieved the “China Dream” of national “rejuvenation” and reclaiming the central position it lost through the Opium Wars.
Since the times of Zhou Enlai, China’s policy of international development cooperation can be seen as an externalization of its domestic development agenda. The language used to describe the objectives of China’s foreign aid – to “enrich and improve their peoples’ livelihood, and promote their economic growth and social progress” – is nearly identical with the language employed when talking about the development needed to overcome the “relative backwardness” of China’s western and national minority regions. The “China Dream” has been extended to a “World Dream” of “common development” (共同发展). Yet, for a long time, China has maintained that its “foreign aid” (对外援助) to developing countries was not “development aid” (发展援助). The latter term was almost exclusively used to describe Western donor’s aid, including to China. This practice has changed under Xi Jinping: the “Right to Development” (发展权) White Paper states that China has been providing “development aid” for sixty years; the name of the aid agency CIDCA recently established in 2018 stands for “China International Development Cooperation Agency,” implying that China now sees itself as a development provider.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.