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Index system vital for Chinese modernization

ZOU YUCHUN and LAN YU | 2022-12-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A freeway passes through the Dadiankou Village, Jiande City, Zhejiang Province. Transportation networks are the key to promoting modernization in rural China. Photo: CFP

As the 20th CPC National Congress report pointed out, “Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It contains elements that are common to the modernization processes of all countries, but it is more characterized by features that are unique to the Chinese context.” Chinese modernization is the path to promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation; and it also offers nations who wish to accelerate development without sacrificing independence and sovereignty a new choice as they forge ahead. To better understand Chinese modernization, it is crucial to clarify its connotations, developmental path, and index system.

Connotation of modernization

To understand what Chinese modernization encompasses, we must first clarify what “modern” means and what “modernization” stands for. In the field of sociology, “modern” refers to a social form different from a traditional medieval society, not a specific time or era. “Modernization” depicts a society’s transformation process from a traditional agricultural society to a modern industrial society. It is a social process involving coordinated development of the economy, society, politics, culture, ecology, and other aspects based on social differentiation, scientific and technological advancement, and an industrial and information revolution.

From a large-scale or macro approach to sociology, modernization is a continuous process of historical change, rather than the accumulation of certain indicators. It is a development process with unique characteristics when compared to pre-modern society. For any country or region, its “traditional” and “modern” nature cannot be viewed separately. On the contrary, only by making full use of the characteristics and advantages of current development, layered on top of respect for the traditions of a country or region, can modernization be achieved. 

However, as a social form amid societal transformation and development, modernization first appeared in Western developed countries and has made relatively significant achievements in the economic sphere. Therefore, some scholars regard the Western model of social modernization as the archetype, and equate modernization to Westernization. In other words, these scholars claim that regardless of the differences in historical experiences, social status quo, and foundations for development, all societies can can imitate the Western process of modernization and achieve broadly similar results. 

For example, American economist Walt Whitman Rostow theorized that all economies must pass through six distinct stages when developing. The stages include traditional society, preconditions to takeoff, takeoff, drive to maturity, an age of high mass consumption, and the search for quality. His theory was criticized for its “one-size-fits-all” approach because it suggests that developing countries can only achieve modernization by copying the path of the West. As reality reveals, the failure of some developing countries to follow the Western modernization path proves that this view violates the objective laws of historical development and reality, and therefore does not truly reflect what is modern and how modernization must always proceed.

In fact, modernization cannot be simplified into one economic dimension. The differences between developing countries and developed countries are the result of overlapping factors such as the economy, politics, social culture, individual values in society, and the international environment. More often than not, social economic growth and changes in social structure, together, propel the real development of society. That said, there is no fixed model for modernization. Developing countries should consider their national conditions and follow their own paths in the process of modernization. History has repeatedly proved that blindly copying the Western model ends either with acclimatization or reducing oneself to a vassal of another country. China’s 5,000-year-long history is the origin of Chinese characteristics, Chinese style, and the Chinese manner, all of which power the uniquely Chinese path to socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Characteristics of Chinese model

If we want to truly understand the characteristics of “Chinese-style modernization,” we need to find out why we are practicing a style that is different from the West. This starts by decoding the “Western-style” modernization path through a comparative analysis.

In reality, there is a huge difference between Chinese modernization and Western modernization. On the path of Western modernization, Marx once discussed the relationship between foreign trade and capitalist expansion. He argued that there is a dialectical relationship between developed countries and underdeveloped, meaning that the West can achieve modernization precisely because it deprives the Third World of development opportunities.Western development essentially depends on the exploitation of the underdeveloped state of the Third World.  The dialectical Marxist view of history offers an excellent methodological lens to construe the Western modernization path.

By analyzing the development path of Western modernization, we see that in addition to internal driving forces such as the progress of science and technology, the emergence of handicraft workers in society, and the work ethic of Protestant Christians, one of the important necessary conditions for modernization is that the wealth of many Third World countries is transferred to the West almost free of cost. The explosive surplus value brought by colonial or exploitative overseas trade is the reason European countries were able to achieve rapid economic growth. Most of this surplus value is concentrated in the hands of capitalists, who use it to complete industrial investment, thus laying the foundation for the industrial revolution and even modernization. 

While Western Europe made great social and economic progress by plundering overseas surplus products, those countries and regions that trade with Western Europe were deprived of the opportunity for economic prosperity due to the comprehensive loss of surplus products. In their “interaction” with Western countries, population decline, economic recession, political degradation, and other dilemmas haunted developing countries.

In this respect, the Chinese modernization path differs remarkably from that of the West. Given China’s massive population, huge differences in natural resource endowments, and distinct regional differences, there is no example to follow for China’s modernization. We had to and have forged our own path through trial and error, innovation, and practice.

On the basis of learning from the experience of the West, under the leadership of the CPC, the Chinese people, through continuous exploration and practice, have always upheld the principles of independence and self-reliance, explored the material and spiritual resources of the country, brought into play the Chinese national traditions of bearing hardships, working together, and making innovations through cooperation. Coupled with adhering to the Five Basic Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in building relations with other nations, a “Chinese-style modernization” path was created. This path focuses on serving the people, striving for innovation, and encouraging every Chinese citizen to act. In the face of changes unseen in a century, China has accelerated the establishment of a “dual circulation” development pattern in which the domestic economic cycle plays a leading role while the international economic cycle remains its extension and supplement.

At present, China’s multi-dimensional and high-quality development in the field of science and technology, economics, society, culture, politics, and ecology, as well as the completion or active promotion of key projects and strategies such as poverty alleviation, building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, rural revitalization, common prosperity, ecological protection,  balanced regional development, and the Belt and Road Initiative, have showcased that Chinese modernization has commonalities with other nations, but it is also uniquely distinctive. As the 20th CPC National Congress report outlined, it is the modernization of “a huge population, common prosperity for all, material and cultural-ethical advancement, harmony between humanity and nature, and peaceful development.”  

Index system

Since the 1980s, the widely used modernization evaluation index system popular in China has been the “Inkeles Index System of Modernization” developed by American sociologist Alex Inkeles. In the early 21st century, Chinese scholar Xie Lizhong analyzed the index system at its source and proposed that domestic studies should objectively describe China’s modernization process using a different system. However, though Chinese scholars have tried to establish a modernization evaluation system in line with China’s national conditions, discussions and research in this regard are still influenced by the Western-dominated modernization system. At present, there are two technical deficiencies. First, there is no consensus on the selection of social indicators and the determination of index weights. Second, both the Inkeles index system and the modernization index system proposed by Chinese scholars are composed of decentralized indices, which are not suitable for comprehensive evaluation.

As socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new stage of development, Chinese modernization theory has begun to take shape. As aforementioned, the five characteristics of Chinese modernization are the reference for constructing a proper evaluation index system. A close look into these five characteristics will reveal that politics, economics, culture, society, ecology, and governance are all covered. The huge population scale is the basic national reality of China. To achieve the modernization of such a huge population scale is unprecedented in difficulty and has a global significance. 

Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the modernization of human beings and strive for the all-round development of people. Achieving common prosperity for all people is an essential requirement and an important feature of China’s modernization. We need to measure per capita GDP, expand the middle-income group, improve basic public services, and narrow the development gap between urban and rural areas and between regions. The coordinated growth of material wealth and intellectual satisfaction is necessary to overcome the inherent flaws of capitalist modernization, which underlines some of the unique traits of Chinese modernization. 

At the same time, the harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature is highlighted to transcend the ecological crisis emergent in  Western industrial civilization. Specifically, it is necessary to evaluate the value realization mechanism for ecological products, the circulation and balance of ecological systems, and their aggregate value. 

China follows the path of peaceful development, vowing not to seek hegemony, resort to war and plunder, or to shift the cost of development to others. We should evaluate various measures to maintain national and international peace and stability, such as efforts to maintain world peace, foreign assistance, and the number of peacekeeping operations and personnel.

In summary, Chinese modernization is an important global modernization link. It introduces a path of socialism with Chinese characteristics that is different from any other modernization mode. It seeks to adopt an innovative and independent development path by drawing on global experiences. In order to tell China’s story well and share China’s experience, it is essential to strengthen the theoretical explanation of Chinese modernization and build evaluation indicators in line with China’s national conditions. These two fields of inquiry should become an important part of the current efforts to build philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics, a Chinese style, and a Chinese manner, and construct the discipline system, academic system, and discourse system, so as to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Zou Yuchun and Lan Yu are from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Edited by YANG XUE