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Modernization: China’s path and logic

HUANG PING | 2021-11-04 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Huang Ping speaks at the Panel of Economics and Sociology in The International Academic Forum in China 2021 on Oct. 14 in Beijing. Photo: CSST

The term “modernization,” or “xiandaihua” in Chinese pinyin, has been interpreted from perspectives of social sciences, such as economics, and through the lens of the humanities like history. Meanwhile, the interpretation has gone through a process of “creative misreading” amid the conceptual interaction between China and the West. In the Chinese context, the concept of modernization is not what it literally means after being translated, nor is it how economist Walt Rostow or sociologist Alex Inkeles has expounded it. Although the West and China have been talking about the same term since the 19th century, its implications and the perspectives taken to interpret it vary significantly, despite overlapping understandings. 
Origins of ‘modernization’ in China
In Chinese academia, lots of concepts in modern social sciences, and even many words and phrases in daily life, were translated from Japan in the 19th century. At that time, the Japanese rendered some key words in Western social sciences with two pieced-together Chinese characters as Japanese translations. The generation of students from the late Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China era, who went to study in Japan, accepted the Japanese translations as they were because they were exactly Chinese characters. 
Originally the concept of modernization was introduced from Europe to China via Japan. “Modernization” in the Japanese language is a Japanese interpretation of European modernization. “Modern,” as a term for the demarcation of time, also underwent a transition from Japanese to Chinese. In the Chinese language, modern refers first to the period from the Opium War of 1940 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, known as “jindai,” and then to the period from 1949 onwards, dubbed “xiandai.” The era we are now in is also called “dangdai” (contemporary).
After the PRC was founded, as early as the First National People’s Congress in 1954, Premier Zhou Enlai had shed light on the modernization of industry, agriculture, transportation, and national defense in his report. At the Third National People’s Congress in late 1964 and early 1965, Zhou elaborated on the modernization of industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology. After a dozen years of twists and turns [due to the Cultural Revolution (1966–76)], at the Fourth National People’s Congress in January 1975, Zhou reiterated modernization in the four fields. 
Therefore, the concept of modernization differed not only from its connotations in the late 19th century when it was imported, but also from the use of modernization schools in sociology. Later, when scholars of my generation started to learn sociology and even went to study in Europe, we felt strongly that the modernization in our view was very different from the interpretation in Europe, particularly the ones by Inkeles and Rostow. 
After 40-odd years of reform and opening up, modernization in China is no longer limited to the four fields. For example, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee in 2013 expressly elevated the modernization of China’s system and capacity for modernization to a very high position. Thus, China never confines modernization to how the Europeans or Japanese construed it, still less to theories of Inkeles and Rostow.
Ever-enriching connotations
China is still emphasizing modernization, calling for continued efforts on future-oriented construction and development, in order to build the country into a great modern nation, but the objective has been further segmented. Comrade Deng Xiaoping set the deadline for the objective to the mid-21st century, while now the goal has been divided more specifically into a sub-goal for 2035 and the other for 2049. Moreover, modernization has been prefixed with the modifier: “uniquely Chinese.” 
Uniquely Chinese modernization underscores Chinese characteristics, Chinese experience, and the Chinese path. Underlying the phrase is the inadvisability of copying other paths and models, whether the Soviet Union or the Western. At a grand ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CPC’s founding on July 1, 2021, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping even urged that “we must continue to adapt the basic tenets of Marxism to China’s specific realities and its fine traditional culture.”
Back to uniquely Chinese modernization and the Chinese path, it is crystal clear that the Chinese path is not restricted to the times since reform and opening up, the founding of the PRC, and the founding of the CPC. Despite the particular significance of the three historical junctures, Xi said in January 2018 that socialism with Chinese characteristics “comes out of 40 years of reform and opening up and the practice of exploration since the establishment of the PRC nearly 70 years ago.” “It is also the result of the 97-year practice of the people’s great social revolutions under the CPC leadership, the 170-plus-year historical process during which the Chinese nation has become prosperous from decline, and the inheritance and development of Chinese civilization in the past 5,000-plus years,” he added. 
In 1998, when reform and opening up had been carried out for 20 years, personally I still used “Chinese experience.” More than 40 years since the policy was adopted, at least the Chinese path has not merely been a factual existence. In the academic sense, it is essential to clarify the logic behind the Chinese path to modernization.
Role of academia
In my opinion, the logic behind the uniquely Chinese path to modernization includes three levels: facts, theory, and thought. 
On the first level, it is necessary to talk about basic facts concerning how China has got here, from 5000 years ago, from 1840, from the founding of the CPC, from the founding of the PRC, and from reform and opening up. The facts should be told by those who have experienced it in person, such as workers, farmers, entrepreneurs, and vendors, as well as administrative officials, and frontline fact reporters, like journalists. 
In terms of theory, each discipline, not only economics and sociology, but also political science and law, as well as the humanities, needs to theorize. Facts are not disciplinary or scholarly interpretations. Professional academic institutions and researchers are needed, and specialized disciplines of philosophy and social sciences or the humanities are established exactly to reason things out, with convincing theories. Although these researchers and institutions seem leisurely and bookish, they are tasked with putting forward original concepts, analytical frameworks, and theoretical logic. 
On the basis of facts and theory, thought is overriding. It is vital for a country to develop its own philosophy, thereby unifying theory and history ultimately. In the case of China, the philosophy is Marxism adapted to the actual conditions of contemporary China, and Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era.  
Facts, theory, and thought should neither be temporally sequenced nor separated, because implicit facts will lead to unclear theory, and unclear theory will result in illogical thought. As Comrade Mao Zedong said in On Practice, practice precedes theory, and all theories originate from practice. However, theory has been divided into diverse disciplines in modern society, and each discipline consists of various academic traditions and schools. Extracting and sublimating views from each discipline preconditions the discussion of thought. 
Conversely, without thought, theory will be unsmooth, and without theory, facts will be groundless. First, without thought, or guiding principles, there is much to be said on each side in most cases. Second, practices without the backing of theory are very likely to go astray and give rise to mistakes. 
This is why guiding thought, along with the construction of disciplinary, academic, and discourse systems, is never emphasized enough. In this undertaking, economists and sociologists certainly should shoulder the responsibility. In fact, they have always been at the forefront of reform and opening up, attempting to figure out our logic jointly with those frontline practitioners. 
With the deepening of reform and opening up and socialist construction, political science and law are also indispensable to building China into a great socialist country featuring uniquely Chinese modernization. 
Last, not only will China strive to follow its path uprightly and smoothly, but it will also try to make the path understood and even accepted. To this end, history and other fields of the humanities should also take part and play their unique roles. 
On Chinese characteristics, Chinese experience, and the Chinese path, we have done much and talked about many facts in the past, but the logic is still not clear nor good enough. In this regard, we previously laid more emphasis on particularities, but that is not enough, either. Chinese practices should not just be an “exception,” or regarded as uncopiable. 
While China has integrated the market economy with socialism to open up a path of socialist market economy, the combination of socialist practices with fine traditional Chinese culture to rejuvenate the nation will probably create a more universal path. 
One of my propositions is that the longer time a thing or phenomenon spans, the wider space it covers, and the more individuals it involves, the more universality, continuity, and vitality it is at least likely to have. 
As such, the claims that the Chinese path is a continuation of the thousands-of-years past, and the building of the uniquely Chinese path to modernization and a great socialist country represents the future vigor, exemplify the argument raised in Mao Zedong’s On Contradiction that the universality of contradiction resides in the particularity of contradiction. If the universality in particularity contains multiple creativities, it will be lifted into coherent and inherited academic theories not only on the dimensions of phenomenon and policy, but also institutionally and culturally, even in practices and idea exchanges of hundreds of millions of people. The theories can be further used to guide practices and also shared by others. 
Huang Ping is a research fellow and executive vice president of the Chinese Institute of Hong Kong under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This is an excerpt from his speech at The International Academic Forum in China 2021.