Chinese modernization breaks myth that ‘modernization equals Westernization’

BY HAN ZHEN | 02-23-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

When addressing the opening of a study session at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee (National Academy of Governance) on Feb 7, 2023, General Secretary Xi Jinping stressed that “the summation and elaboration of the theory of Chinese modernization is a major theoretical innovation achieved at the 20th CPC National Congress, and it represents the latest major achievement in developing scientific socialism.” Chinese modernization and its theory is extensively significant and highly meaningful to realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. It has also shattered the myth that “modernization equals Westernization,” while serving as a mirror reflecting the historic progress of human civilization.  

The modernization process of a country needs to follow the general rule of modernization, but it shall be suited to its realities and characterized by features unique to its context, Xi noted. He pointed out that Chinese modernization is deeply rooted in China’s fine traditional culture. It reflects the advanced nature of scientific socialism, as it learns from and absorbs all excellent achievements of human civilization. It also points to the development direction of human civilization and progress, while demonstrating a new vision and a brand new form of civilization apart from the Western model of modernization.

“Brand new,” in this context, refers specifically to the incorporation of both “Chinese characteristics” and a country’s specific reality into the general rules of modernization. Chinese modernization is characterized by five features that are unique to the Chinese context. It is the modernization of a huge population, of common prosperity for all, of material and cultural-ethical advancement, of harmony between humanity and nature, and of peaceful development. This is not only a theoretical summary but also a requirement as to how, in practice, we should advance the modernization process. In other words, from the perspectives of both value orientations and requirements in practice, Chinese modernization has dispelled the myth that modernization equals Westernization.

Myth-breaking solution

Undoubtedly, various modernization processes share commonalities, thus countries are bound to follow the general rules. 

However, due to time and spatial differences, different countries’ modernization paths must also present different particularities. These particularities are the results of different directions and strategies pursued by different countries based on their own conditions, realities, and features. 

Although modernization first started in the West, it is not synonymous with Westernization. World history evolves in an unbalanced way, with different nations playing leading roles at different historical phases and becoming so-called “nations of global historical significance.” Compared to the splendid ancient civilizations born in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, the rise of the West is very recent. Since about  1500, some Western countries gained “first-mover advantage” through colonization and plunder, before accumulation of wealth by exploiting laborers, and eventually obtaining dominant positions in the “world system” via unequal trade. These are the commonalities of Western modernization. As British political commentator Carlos Martinez put it, “Western modernization is imperialistic modernization.” 

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and especially after the reform and opening up, it took China merely a few decades to reach the same level of industrialization that took some developed Western countries a few centuries. “China miracles” have been created, such as fast economic growth and long-term social stability, ushering in broad prospects for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Apart from its much faster pace, China’s modernization path is also entirely different from the Western one. As a densely populated country, China fueled and expanded its modernization process with its own endeavors and ingenuity. The process has been independent, peaceful, fair, equal, and sustainable. It is not only a valuable contribution to humanity’s collective knowledge and human civilization, but also convincing proof that not taking the Western path can and will better facilitate modernization.

Modernization paths, plural 

Chinese modernization has shown the world that there are more than one path towards modernization, and each country can embark on a modernization path that suits their own conditions. From a philosophical point of view, the particularities of modernization is historical, realistic, and existential, while its commonalities are the abstractions embedded in particularities. Practice has proven that since Chinese modernization suits the country’s national conditions, China has managed to walk towards modernization in a steady manner. Chinese modernization is the only right way towards national rejuvenation and building China into a strong country. It can be expected that as long as other developing nations choose a modernization path in alignment with their national realities, they may expect similarly successful outcomes. 

Actually, the modernization processes of Western countries have commonalities and peculiarities too. For instance, the UK made use of its maritime hegemony when it carried out pirate-style “free trade” (such as selling opium), and the US took a path of colonization and oppressing African slaves, while other late-comer capitalist countries like Germany and Japan embarked on a nation-steering militaristic path. 

To seize a dominating position in discourse power, Western countries tend to omit or even cover up the differences among themselves, whilst fabricating so-called miracles of “Western modernization” based on free-trade and the market economy. In the eyes of Westerners, modernization can only be achieved through the Western way, and a country can only survive in the world system through relying on the West. China has proven them wrong with its successful modernization facilitated by a socialist path, and demonstrates that the paths to modernization are manifold. Meanwhile, it serves as a new and wider lens for us to view Western modernization, which also reveals the differences within the West. 

To conclude, modernization is not synonymous with Westernization, and developing countries can and should choose their own paths. In addition, the commonalities among Western countries in their modernization paths are mostly plunder and oppression, and not many other common elements they share are worth learning from. In actuality, there are more than one Western modernization paths too. In reality, the so-called consistent Western modernization is non-existent; it is merely a fabricated myth. 

New hope for civilization

Chinese modernization has shattered the nonsensical talk of the “end of history,” and brought new hope for the advancement of human civilization going forward. The “end of history” theory can be seen as an extreme form of “modernization equals Westernization.” Based on historical events including the collapse of the Soviet Union, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama believed that the logic of history has reached its “perfect tense,” meaning that liberal democracy is the final form of government for all nations and capitalist free market is the final form of economy, so there can be no progression from it to an alternative system. 

This viewpoint is a classic demonstration of Western arrogance of history. However, the development of human society can not be changed by human will, and the wheels of history will not stop rolling on. History is a ruthless judge. People have come to the realization that the essence of Western modernization is that “might is right.” It solidifies inequality formulated throughout history into rules,” and sees the law of jungle as the truth in life. Western modernization is built on certain nations’ domination over others, and a few people’s dominance over the majority of the people, which  not only is inhumane but also runs counter to the advancement of history. As human society forges ahead, people around the world have begun to see the limitation of Western modernization. 

By contrast, the unique vision rolled out by Chinese modernization has shed light on a possibility that can better improve human wellbeing. It expanded the options for developing countries, while offering a Chinese solution to exploring a better social system. 

While vigorously increasing productivity to drive rapid economic growth, China is also striving for coordinated development of material progress and cultural and ideological progress. The country has experienced an economic boom and increased per capita income. While developing itself, China has also facilitated international cooperation and joint development with a win-win mindset. China chooses diligence and peaceful development and will never go down the beaten track of seeking hegemony with strength. 

Besides economic and social development, China also strives for ecological conservation and harmonious coexistence between man and nature. Chinese modernization implies the world outlook of datong (the Great Unity), the value of putting people first, the vision of history in which people are the creators of history, the civilizational outlook that different civilizations should exchange and learn from each other, the democracy view of “whole-process people’s democracy,” and the ecological view of harmony between humanity and nature, etc. 

Chinese modernization represents a major innovation in global modernization theory and practice. We understand that modernization does not equal Westernization, and as such, we do not think it equals Chinese modernization either. However, Chinese people’s exploration of modernization paths can still set an example for other developing countries.

The road towards modernization requires tangible actions. Chinese modernization is an unprecedented undertaking, and we are still on the road of building China into a great modern socialist country. This brand new endeavor is complex, arduous, and long-lasting. We are bound to meet many external frictions, challenges, and obstacles. Thus we must be alert to potential risks and be aware of worst-case scenarios, take precautions, and fiercely fight for Chinese modernization. 


Han Zhen is a professor and director of the academic committee of Beijing Normal University. 

Edited by WENG RONG