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GAO XIANG: 10 questions to reflect upon in modernization studies

| 2015-05-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Like “tradition” and “enlightenment,” “modernization” is also a major theoretical and practical issue that no nation in the world can possibly avoid. Among the three, modernization is the most complicated and challenging. So far, the tasks of modernization have yet to be fulfilled. We are still in the historical process of modernization, facing new situations and new problems every day. Similarly, modernization theories and paradigms are also being tested and challenged. Concerning modernization, the following 10 questions are what researchers should reflect upon during their studies.

The first question is “What is ‘modernization?’ and who has the right to define modernization?” In human history, undoubtedly, Western countries have been the pioneers and leaders of modernization. Western modernization has triggered extensive and profound historical changes in such fields as politics, economics, science and technology, and humanities and created various miracles of human history. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce 100 years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”

However, does the leading position of the West in modernization mean that only Western countries are entitled to define “modernization?” Is “modernization” about Western modernization only? Can the non-Western world do nothing but follow the steps of Western countries within the conceptual framework of “modernization” they have crafted?

The second question is “Is the Western model of modernization universal? and is modernization inseparable from Westernization?” Western modernization, on the economic front, is essentially bourgeois ownership. With regard to politics, it means representative democracy established to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie. In terms of ideology, it entails ideas like liberty, democracy and human rights fostered by Enlightenment thinkers. Fundamentally, it is the logic of capital that dominates the practice of everyday life in Western capitalist countries.

It has been reasonable to apply this model in certain historical periods and has had a significant effect on historical progress. Nonetheless, the problem is: is this model still so sacred and inviolable today that all countries hoping to realize modernization must conform to it? On mankind’s way to modernization, is the capitalist Kafdin Valley insurmountable?

The third question is “How can the history of modernization be understood?” In the magnificent historical course of modernization, Western modernization unleashed tremendous productivity, led to the rapid development of science and technology, and created vast amounts of material and spiritual wealth. However, we should also be soberly aware that as they modernized, Western countries colonized and looted Asian, African and Latin American countries, enslaving their people and resulting in the polarization of the rich and the poor, environmental destruction and clash of civilizations. To this day, modernization led by the logic of capital, taking on a different look though, is still accompanied by cruel invasion and plunder of developing countries. Now, it is high time to review the centuries-old history of modernization. Experience and lessons derived from within will be valuable assets for us as we move forward into the future.

The fourth question is “Can colonial aggression bring about modernization?” In history, Western modernization was about colonial expansion. It cannot be denied that the rise of capitalism was marked by pirate trade and gunboat diplomacy. Western modernization has indeed spread the fire of capitalist civilization across the world, while at the same time, it ruthlessly disrupted the normal historical course of most countries and nations. Resources of the victimized countries were ransacked, and their people enslaved and slaughtered. Most ironically, some self-styled Christianity-specific Saviors purport to light the dark corner of the Third World with the Western “beacon of freedom,” but almost none of the colonized countries have realized real modernization. Why?

The fifth question is “Do the prerequisites for modernization exist in developed countries only? and can other nations and countries rely on their own development to progress into modernization?” The underlying question is “Was history of most countries in the world stagnant before Western colonization?” If there had not been Western colonial aggression, would these countries and nations have lived in the pre-modernization era forever, and remained enshrouded in the darkness of the so-called “barbarism” and “ignorance” generation after generation?

Here I would like to cite Max Weber’s view. “Capitalism and capitalistic enterprises, even with a considerable rationalization of capitalistic calculation, have existed in all civilized countries of the earth,” said Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism based on the actual adaptation of economic action to a comparison of money income with money expenses. Despite a leaning towards pan-capitalism in his words, he was telling us that human social life has some common features, but in the age of civilization, these features have something in common with modern society to a certain extent. The view that only Western society has modern factors, which turns a blind eye to or simply negates factors in the Orient, will fail to withstand in-depth theoretical scrutiny and tests of reality.

The sixth question is “How can we recognize the relationship between globalization and modernization?” Western modernization really ushered in an era of globalization. Only in this era do we have what can truly be referred to as “world history.” Therefore, although modernization is not identical with Westernization, it is so true that modernization is globalization. Through the process of globalization, the entire world has become involved in the capitalist system. The majority of developing countries are not only in an economically dependent position, but their national identity faces a variety of crises under the overwhelming influence of Western culture. Current global norms and dominant values largely originate from the West. Then a few questions would present themselves: Does it mean that these countries and nations have to blend into the modern world at the cost of their independence, unity and sovereignty? Or at the cost of their own culture and dignity? If yes, shouldn’t we reflect upon it and have the right to doubt the rationality of such a world order?

The seventh question is “How should we view the relationship between the traditional and the modern?” “Tradition” historically defines the ethnic identity, cultural identity and value orientation that constitute the premise and starting point for us as we look toward the future. Without a deep understanding of “tradition,” we would never know “where we come from,” much less “where to go.” However, modernization is, after all, the theme of this age. A nation that sticks to tradition and avoids modernization is doomed to lose the future. In the transformation from traditional to modern, we are sure to go through pain time and time again. The most difficult topic is undoubtedly how to handle the relationship between the traditional and the modern. In other words, in the modern era, fraught with uncertainties, how to rationally carry forward tradition and chart the future is not only a serious theoretical proposition but also a weighty practical issue.

The eighth question is “How can we understand the unique value of China’s modernization path?” Since 1840, when the Opium War broke out, numerous Chinese people with lofty ideals have explored a modernization path for China with immense passion. Many of them even paid for this with their lives. We tried the mode of “Chinese learning as the fundamental structure and Western learning as supplement” and experimented with Western-style reforms, but all to no avail. Only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China did we, through arduous explorations, finally strike out a path of our own: socialism with Chinese characteristics. Along the path, China has created a development miracle that is unprecedented in human history.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics is a road to modernization with distinct features of China that does not follow the Western model. This path adheres to basic principles of scientific socialism and is meanwhile rooted in Chinese history and actual conditions, guiding China to the future. How to correctly understand China’s road to modernization and how to, with no prejudices and an open mind, clearly judge its value in world history are worthy of contemplation.

The ninth question is “What is the future for modernization? and what is the next goal and direction for human modernization?” In this regard, Francis Fukuyama has put forward a famous idea. He proposed that the advent of Western liberal democracy represented “the end of history,” which stated that there will be no progression in the history of the world. Fukuyama’s view, boiled down to its fundamentals, means that the end point of human history is Western capitalism. However, the question remains: Is human history really going to end now? Is Fukuyama’s notion of a complete social formation represented by the US and the UK going to linger on for generations to come? Fukuyama first raised the idea when the former Soviet Union collapsed and East Europe underwent dramatic changes. Now more than two decades have passed and human history in fact has not ended as Fukuyama predicted. Socialism has developed by leaps and bounds in China. History has unfolded to us vaster space for development along with new prospects.

The 10th question is “How should we view modernization paradigms?” In my opinion, there are at least two defects in current modernization research: Western-centered theory and rigid dichotomy. Most modernization theories take Western modernization as a reference, building a mode of binary opposition between the traditional and the modern, agricultural and industrial society, Western and non-Western world. Using this logic, only by following the steps of Western modernization can the non-Western world break away from the binary opposition and achieve the so-called real modernization. We have reason to doubt whether such modernization theories will run into a dead end.

Modernization cannot be equated with Westernization. When writing modernization history, we must break through the Western-centered theory and pay more attention to the diversity and uniqueness of modernization paths of the non-Western world. To break through the Western-centered theory does not necessarily involve creating a new theoretical “center,” but to free ourselves of the mentality of a one-size-fits-all approach and treat modernization history of different countries equally. This requires us to update our paradigms of modernization and construct a more inclusive, diversified modernization paradigm to compile world modernization history through a global lens.

Modernization is an ongoing process and modernization theory will be continuously developed, corrected and amended through practice. This is the very charm of modernization studies. With countless problems to address, we are advancing amid explorations, yet in a rather clear direction. This is a contribution to civilization. Just as Lewis Henry Morgan commented on the age of civilization in Ancient Society: “Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending.”

Gao Xiang is secretary-general of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and editor-in-chief of the Social Sciences in China Press under CASS. This article is the script of Gao’s speech at the third Sino-US High-Level Scholarly Forum held in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region from May 9 to 10.