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Global perspective and multiple paths to modernization

LIU XINCHENG | 2021-10-21 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Liu Xincheng addresses the Opening Ceremony of The International Academic Forum in China 2021 on Oct. 14 in Beijing. Photo: Zhu Gaolei/CSST

Modernization, as the term implies, is a diachronic process. Modernization surely has attributes of historiography. However, in fact, modernization research didn’t originate from historiography, or even any discipline. It is actually a product of international policy.

Origins of modernization research
After World War II, with the beginning of the Cold War and the rise of national liberation movements, the United States gave top priority in its global strategy to competing against the socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union for more than 40 countries that used to be colonies. “In the context of the present polarization of power,” the US National Security Council Paper NSC-68 read, “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” The Kennedy Administration even believed that the most likely soil for communism was new countries in deep poverty that used to suffer from colonialism and seized power through revolution. To this end, the United States must construct a theory attractive enough to people of any region and any nation to replace the doctrine of communism. As such, the modernization theory emerged. Walt Whitman Rostow, the main founder of the modernization theory, once served as the White House National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State. His identity is one of the signs that the theory is ideological rather than academic. Under the multifold motivation of federal grants, corporate funds, and academic reputation, a group of social science scholars in the United States joined in the construction of the modernization theory in the 1950s and 1960s. In order to “win over” and “lure” more advocates, this theory delineated a standard path to modernization for non-Western countries with Western countries as the paradigm, which is based on the dichotomy between the developed and the underdeveloped, with antagonism between the traditional and the modern. This path focuses on the establishment of a free market economy, a multi-party system and representative politics, Protestant ethical secular culture, and contract-based civil society. While urging countries to abandon their national traditions and reform their systems, it directs modernization towards the contemporary United States and vilifies the Soviet Union modernization as “heresy” and “a malady.” 
The theory is closely followed by historians in the Western world, especially of the United States. They uphold the nation-state investigation approach that has been consistently followed since the establishment of history as a discipline in the 19th century. They compare the history of each country with that of Western countries one by one, and make an issue of “what the West has and what the non-Western world doesn’t have,” regarding what the West has but the non-West doesn’t have as the inherent flaws of non-Western countries. 
Since the Western modernization theory is not built on universal experience, this non-historical and non-scientific theory has been constantly falsified in practice. For more than half a century, the world has seen increasingly unbalanced development, most effectively embodied by the widening gap between developed and underdeveloped countries. Under such circumstances, the Western historical conception of modernization has often been questioned, of which the global view of history is most subversive.
Global view of history
The so-called global view of history, in short, is a historical method that examines the world and mankind as a whole from a macro perspective beyond the narrow perspective of nation-states.
The global view of history featuring historical materialism was initiated by Marx and Engels. In a series of works such as The German Ideology, The Communist Manifesto, and Das Kapital, Marx and Engels repeatedly pointed out that human history entered a new era with the integration of capitalism, modernization, and globalization in the 16th century. In this new era, capital connected a modern world in which the destiny of every country was connected with the destiny of other countries. This simply means that the world entered the modernization process as a whole. If the world is a large system, the various countries are sub-systems. These sub-systems interact with each other and they cannot operate outside the overall system. In that case, it is inappropriate to discuss modernization by singling out a specific country from the world system. In the modern world system characterized by the integration of capitalism, modernization, and globalization, capital accumulation is the driving force and unbalanced development is the basic feature. As such, the position in the capital chain becomes the key factor that determines the destiny of each country. Different positions will result in varying endowments, starting points, and speeds of modernization, and even varying objectives at a certain stage. The global view of history based on historical materialism completely dismisses the possibility of an identical path for diverse countries, and methodologically shakes the foundation of the classic Western modernization theory, charting a new path for modernization research.
Scholars of global history attach great importance to the comparative approach to studying the history of modernization in countries across the globe. Such comparative approaches, unlike the traditional ones, tend not to look for other countries’ “deficiencies” as compared to the West, but point out different characteristics of the modernization processes of non-Western countries, revealing the non-universal nature of the Western model. They found that shortly after emerging countries gained independence, the tendency of total Westernization was indeed observed as part of the colonial legacies. Examples include Latin America in the early 19th century, Eastern Europe after World War I, and some Islamic, African, and South Asian countries after World War II. However, they all failed. In fact, so far there has been no precedent for success among late-developing countries by copying the West.
Varying development characteristics
Through comparative research, historians of global history have identified many development characteristics based on the respective national conditions of each country.
In terms of politics, since the original world system was superimposed on the colonial system, the deprived countries realized that to seek development in the world system dominated by capitalist suzerains, they must fight for national independence. The background and process against and in which these countries seized power through revolution differ widely from the history of Western nation-states, so, naturally, their state systems and systems of government will not follow the Western model. Socialist countries integrated the struggle against imperialism with the proletarian revolution, and established the Soviet or people’s democratic dictatorship. Latin American colonies launched national liberation movements, and the army occupied an important position in the new regimes. Similar cases were also seen in other regions, such as Japan and Africa.
Economically, first of all, emerging countries initiated the new modernization drive in a top-down manner, which is different from the bottom-up approach in the West. The government plays an important role in guiding economic development. Second, most of the emerging countries experienced transitions from a subsidiary economy (an economy subsidiary to the original suzerain) to an import substitution economy, and then to an export-oriented economy. The success or failure of the transitions was closely related to the external environment, as well as the opportunity of the transition. The oil-producing countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, as well as South Korea and Singapore in Asia succeeded, while Argentina, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries saw stagnation, swaying between import substitution and export orientation. This indicates that the success of transformation is highly contingent. Lastly, the socialist-planned economy of the Soviet Union and China before reform and opening up boldly tried to be self-reliant outside the economic system of the capitalist world and looked for a new path, bringing about rapid growth. Subsequently, China started reform and opening up, and developed a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics, accomplishing remarkable achievements that have been drawing global attention. All these suggest that in different times and with their varying positions in the world market, countries have to explore development paths based on their own national realities.
In the cultural sphere, Islam and Buddhism are still two of the world’s major religions, while Hinduism and Catholicism also have a large number of believers. These beliefs greatly differ from and even severely oppose Protestantism, but they can be connected with modernization to varying degrees. The traditional cultures of each country can absolutely contribute to modernization. The legacy of Japanese Bushido, the non-material tendency of Indian culture, and the multicultural integration realized in Latin America have all proven that the Western narrative of tradition-modernity dichotomy is groundless.
In terms of society, the tribal system in the Arab World and the multi-ethnic integration in Latin America are both arduous tasks in their modernization processes. The West has no such experience at all, let alone prescriptions that can actually work. Kinship-based enterprises and cooperative joint-stock corporations have played an important role in the economic success of East Asia, including Japan. Human bonding has not been completely replaced by contractual relationships in their modernization processes.
Finally, it should be noted that when looking at history from a global perspective that transcends nation-states with the entire human race as a whole, the relationship between man and nature is highlighted. This prompts people to reflect on the modernization process. Up to the present, development remains at the core of the concept of modernization, that is, to pursue unbounded economic growth. In the capitalism-dominated world economic system, the need for economic growth is required by the market and the lust for profit. Development is only embodied by profit and wealth, but this entails uncontrolled increase in energy consumption. The disastrous results, including sharp biodiversity decline, drastic climate change, and high levels of radiation, will gravely threaten the survival of mankind. The good news is, this concept of development is being questioned. China’s five-sphere integrated development outlook includes ecological progress in the scope of development, and Bolivia has proposed the development initiative of “sumak kawsay.” Both represent new explorations of the path to modernization.
In summary, we are still living in the one-world economic system. In this system, every country must find its own way of survival and development without undermining the overall interests of other countries and the world. There are diverse paths to modernization, and exploration in this regard is endless. In this community of shared future for mankind, all countries should respect each other’s choices. At least, it is not appropriate to force other countries to take a certain path out of their own interests, with the Cold War mentality or antagonistic thinking, and disguise this path theoretically as social science.
Liu Xincheng is vice chairperson of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a history professor. This is an excerpt from his speech at the forum’s Opening Ceremony.