China's success comes from seeking its own form of modernization: Martin Jacques
Published: Oct 24, 2022 07:47 PM
Lujiazui Photo:VCG

Lujiazui Photo:VCG

Since 2012, there has been a succession of new thoughts and proposals emanating from Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, and the CPC leadership. It has been a highly fertile and thought-provoking period. In rough chronological order it has included the Chinese Dream, Belt and Road Initiative, AIIB, new concept of major power relations, community with a shared future for mankind, and dual circulation. Between 2012 and 2016, this flow of new thinking captured the attention not only of China but much of the world. From 2017, Trump's emergence on the global stage provided a counter-narrative that succeeded in stealing some of China's thunder. But this did not stop the flow of creativity from Beijing.

The 20th CPC National Congress has provided us with a further rich vein of new thinking.

Perhaps the most important and consequential idea is that of Chinese modernization. Modernization has long been a critical concept in China's development. Its origins lie in China's failure to industrialize at the same time as Britain, which, as other European countries followed in Britain's tracks, was to leave it historically stranded - backward, vulnerable, and poverty-stricken. As a result, China embarked on industrialisation - or, to use a related term with a broader meaning, modernization - well over 150 years later than Britain. The great task facing China after 1949 was modernization - with the bar, and template, set by the West, which by then had become a distant speck on the development horizon, such was its progress. 

It meant that China had no alternative but to adopt the Western paradigm for modernization. After 1978, China relentlessly pursued the task of modernization, with the US acting as the main influence. In important respects, nonetheless, the Chinese model was to remain distinctive. How could it not have done? China, as a latecomer, competing with Western countries that were much further down the road, had to make things up as it went along. However much it borrowed, it still had to invent its own path. Chinese modernization was a hybrid, part Western and part indigenous.

But China is now in a very different position. It may still be primarily a developing country, but parts of the economy are already on a par with Silicon Valley. The latest congress set the goal of China reaching the same level of development as middle-ranking European countries by 2035. That will mean some features of China will be well ahead of these countries by 2035, and in other respects it will still lag behind: China is a "continent," and transforming a continent is a very uneven process. The big takeaway here is that China has, in important respects, now arrived at the leading edge of modernity. Modernity, so long a creature of the West, no longer belongs to the West. 

Take the example of common prosperity. Western-style globalization has led to growing inequality in many countries, with China being no exception. China's Gini coefficient is more or less the same as that of the US. This cannot be acceptable in a socialist country. Under the aegis of common prosperity, a debate has begun on how to reduce inequality. There is a similar debate in the West but it has had little effect. Indeed, inequality has continued to grow. It has become one of the great questions of our time. If China can find a way of successfully addressing inequality, in the way it has conquered absolute poverty, such a fairer and more inclusive modernity will have an enormous global impact.

Or take COVID-19. China and the West tackled it in very different ways with very different outcomes. China drew on its Confucian and communist traditions of social cohesion combined with an extensive use of digital technology and vaccination, while the West has relied very heavily on vaccination. China's results were much superior, with far less deaths and infections. 

A new type of Chinese modernization depends on a new kind of balance in the relationship between Western and Chinese input. China must place greater stress on its own intellectual and cultural capacity and become less dependent on American influences. How is this to be achieved? There is a powerful emphasis in Xi's speech on the importance of producing many new Chinese experts in the fields of science and technology in order to promote Chinese modernization. Likewise, he stresses the need for a great expansion of the Chinese university sector. 

But what kind of Chinese universities? There has been a strong tendency to ape American universities, to regard them as a template for what Chinese universities should be like. Sure, China can learn a great deal from the best US universities, but Chinese-style modernization requires different kinds of universities, experts, and ways of thinking. The same applies to academic disciplines. Academic economics in China, for example, pays too much respect to, and has been too influenced by, US academic economics.

Chinese modernization is an enormous intellectual challenge. A new kind of modernity requires new ways of thinking. Modernization 1.0 must progressively be replaced by modernization 2.0. Chinese modernization will still be a hybrid, but the Chinese component will be far greater.    

The author was until recently a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. He is a visiting professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and a senior fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. Follow him on twitter @martjacques. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn