Chinese modernization: the most successful in history of the world

By Bunn Nagara / 03-09-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Since the reform and opening up in 1978, China’s achievements in advancing modernization are evident throughout its society and are occurring at a surprisingly rapid rate, deeply transforming the country in many ways. The modernization process has been admired widely, and is the most successful anywhere in the history of the world.

Sound national policy as a guide

In the developing world, many countries would like to experience China’s level of success, but it has not been easy. The most obvious areas of success are technology, infrastructure development, and economic growth itself, each of which has a multiplier effect in boosting the productivity of other industries generally. Technological modernization in information and communications technology (ICT) vastly improves people’s communication and learning abilities, from helping farmers to improve their crop production to assisting students to study better. Infrastructure development promotes people’s connectivity, boosting travel, tourism, trade, and the sale of goods throughout China as well as for export. This leads to more and better sustained economic growth.

The elements of success for modernization include government discipline and policy focus to ensure good governance, effective communication of national plans for better understanding and support, and responsive government services to address needs for public emergencies. The principles apply to all countries regardless of their internal economic or political system. In ASEAN, a few countries with these qualities such as Singapore have succeeded better in modernization than some others without them. 

National policies have been crucial to China’s modernization since the beginning. Without sound national policies as a guide for the country, the country as a whole could not have succeeded so systematically, consistently, rapidly and dramatically. China is a very large and populous country, so it could have taken very long to adopt the necessary changes for modernization. But admirably, the important changes were actually quite rapid over the past decades, as the government and people worked well together to embrace the changes needed for growth, which became an essential impetus for modernization. 

Sharing China’s modernization success

Many developing countries in the Global South including ASEAN members have much to learn from China’s success in modernization. For example, one essential area that China has correctly focused on is anti-corruption, from which a lot can be gained for other countries. Corruption is a most destructive force that can destroy a country from within. The faster a country experiences economic growth, the greater the risks of corruption destroying it. It is therefore vital for any credible government always to do its best against corruption. Many countries would want to join the global anti-corruption team because they admire China’s success in fighting graft at all levels. China can be the international leader in a new global anti-corruption movement. 

Unequal Western model 

The Western model of modernization is now out of date. Modernization needs to be continuous because it is an endless cycle of renewal. It therefore requires constant public funding in sufficiently large amounts to be meaningful. Economically, Western countries have reached their limit in the 21st century. Modernization that depends on national economic capacity is also reaching its limit in the West.

Internally within the industrialized Western nations themselves, modernization has been based on great inequalities of wealth between rich and poor. Serious social stratification has appeared in Western society as a result. This has produced class divisions and resentment, which has discouraged society from acting as one unified nation. Such a country therefore cannot develop and modernize to its fullest potential. This is in essence an unstable system that cannot be sustainable because of conflicting class identities and interests, preventing society as a whole from moving forward together to serve the nation and people. Initially the flaws and defects were not very clear and many people thought they would have a fair chance at upward social mobility, but in time it became clear that opportunities were limited and insufficiently shared even among those who worked hard, possessed job skills and had work qualifications. In time, when money and profits were valued over people and society, under-regulation of wealth meant that the wealth of the few became more important than the needs of the many.

In the US where capitalism is less restrained, the problems are larger and deeper. Demonstrators based on race or targeted at institutions or privileged elite groups (eg: Occupy Wall Street) indicate that social division and resentment are endemic in Western societies. 

In addition, Western modernization is based on colonial exploitation of foreign countries and the theft of their national wealth and natural heritage. It has been built on the shameless crimes against other nations and cultures, including slavery, genocide and other gross human rights violations. Without colonial exploitation and imperial plunder, Western modernization would not have developed the way the world has come to know it.

In contrast, China’s modernization has not depended on the colonial conquest, theft or imperialist exploitation of foreign nations. Instead, China had to defend itself against foreign invasion, occupation, theft and forced unequal treaties through wars. 

Benefiting from Confucian culture

Not many people know that ancient China had experienced aspects of modernization before the West. The British scientist Joseph Needham in his important work Science and Civilization in China pointed out that the West adopted Chinese inventions up to the 16th century, which helped to modernize the West during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The West achieved this through large-scale manufacturing and industrialization, whereas such widespread impact was absent in China because the inventions were isolated and did not have much social, economic or industrial effects. However, today’s China is very different and is able to apply scientific discoveries and innovations in many fields. Unlike the West, China is also benefiting from its Confucian culture which emphasizes humanity, education, training, meritocracy, order and developing society’s potential to the fullest. Confucianist culture has helped China become the most economically advanced center in East Asia. 

Bunn Nagara is a senior research fellow from the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia. 

Edited by BAI LE