In China, the idea that modernization does not mean “Westernization” long predates the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Chinese substance, Western application” (中体西用) was the slogan of reform-minded intellectuals after the defeat in the Opium Wars. Its essence has been carried on by the CCP whose leaders have emphasized that China will not pursue a “Western-style” but a “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化). One that modernizes industry, agriculture, army and science and technology – but does not include political liberalization or democracy. The latter, the CCP believes, has led to social conflict within Western societies – something that China can only avoid through the leadership of the CCP and socialist modernization (社会主义现代化).
Li Shulei, the head of the CCP’s Propaganda Department, described modernization as something imposed on China by the West that subsequently became an internal necessity. This view is deeply embedded in China’s historical memory. Ever since the defeat by the technologically superior British and Japanese in the 19th century, techno-centered modernization was seen as the path for China to overcome backwardness and national humiliation. Modernization was also closely linked to anti-imperialism through the struggle for national self-determination.
Sun Yat-sen, considered the “father of modern China” argued in Three Principles of the People (1911) that increasing “people’s welfare” (民生) through economic and industrial development programs was a prerequisite for realizing “nationalism” (民族主义) and “self-determination” (自决权). To this day, both the CCP and the Guomindang (KMT, now one of the political parties in Taiwan) claim Sun Yat-sen’s intellectual legacy. In Sun’s footsteps, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who co-founded the CCP in 1921, saw modernization as a core part of anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggle, and as a means to improve people’s livelihood and enhance capacities for independent development.
Moreover, the early communists linked China’s modernization quest with those of other poor countries: Liu Shaoqi declared in 1945 that the course taken by China would lead the way for Southeast Asian countries facing similar conditions. Later, through foreign aid, China’s domestic quest for modernization was extended to other countries.
Beginning with Mao Zedong, CCP leaders made clear that China would pursue a “socialist modernization”. In the Mao era, it meant following the example of the Soviet Union to modernize industry, agriculture, military and science and technology. The “Great Leap Forward” was Mao’s attempt to accelerate the transformation of China’s economy from agrarian to industrial – which ended in a country-wide famine.
The “Four Modernizations” in industry, agriculture, military and science and technology then became the core of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policy. To the West, Deng argued: “Our four modernizations are four Chinese-style modernizations”. Deng’s modernizations included the “socialist market economy” with a mix of state elements and private enterprises, and experimentation with foreign technology and policy. But Deng rejected the “Fifth Modernization”, brought forth in the Democracy Wall Movement by Wei Jingshan: democracy in the liberal sense.
Xi Jinping has described Chinese-style modernization as the pathway to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which China aims to achieve by the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049. A defined milestone on this path is to make progress towards “common prosperity” and to become a middle-income country by 2035. In 2022, the goal of “Chinese-style modernization” was amended to the Party Constitution at the 20th National People’s Congress.
The party discourse on modernization in the Xi-era has a deep moral undertone. It postulates that in contrast to the “old path of capital-centered, polarizing and expansionist Western modernization”, China was pursuing a better “people-centered development”: one to which China’s “whole process democracy” was better suited than liberal democracy. Referring to Sun Yat-sen’s vision of modernization in 2020, Xi argued that China has progressed far beyond what Sun had imagined – and only the CCP was able to achieve that. Liberal voices warn, however, that the primacy of ideology over economics in Xi’s Chinese-style modernization has closed the spaces for political innovation that made China’s modernization successful in the first place.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.