People-centered modernization distinguishes China from the West

By QIAN CHENGDAN / 11-11-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: Qian Chengdan is a professor and director of the Institute of Area Studies at Peking University.

The modernization theory gradually took shape in the West, especially in the United States, following World War II. At that time, the United States had gained hegemony in the capitalist world. Facing the rise of the socialist camp and the wave of national liberation movements, the United States needed a new theory to safeguard the capitalist system, confront communism, and contend for the Third World. The modernization theory came into being against this background, represented by such famous authors as Gabriel Almond, Talcott Parsons, Walt Rostow, Samuel Huntington, and Barrington Moore Jr.

Non-universal Western theory 
The Western modernization theory is based on Western experience. Since the Renaissance, the West had begun to slowly shake off the shackles of the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, sudden changes of modernity took place and brought into being a modern society. Starting from this, Western scholars summarized modernization as a number of indicators, such as economic industrialization, political democratization, social secularization, administrative bureaucratization and specialization, and action-oriented performance. Huntington’s works exemplified this indicator orientation. The Western construction of the modernization theory aimed to guide developing countries to accept that the free-market economic system and the political system featuring competitive elections are the yardsticks of modernization, which developing countries should follow.
However, the modernization theory based on Western experience was repeatedly proven inapplicable to developing countries, so revisionist theories, such as the dependency theory and world system theory emerged, which are devoted to observing the experience of non-Western countries. The ecological modernization theory and sustainable development theory surfaced later.
Some people say that modernization theory is now outdated. This is not the case. The fact is that China needs its own modernization theory. Since 1840, China has struggled to find its way forward and pursue modernization. By the 21st century, it has made remarkable achievements and shocked the world. However, these experiences were not summarized into a complete theory, and theoretical accomplishments have lagged far behind practice. The Western modernization theory cannot explain China’s practices, nor can Chinese practices be grounded in Western theories. Therefore, building its own modernization theory based on China’s modernization practices is already a requirement of the times.
Three tasks of modernization
Modernization entails the completion of three tasks. The three tasks constitute the full process and entire content of modernization.
The first task is to establish a modern country, which is the prerequisite and necessary condition for modernization. Throughout the world, the first step of modernization is always to build a modern country. Without a modern country, it is impossible to start modernization. Amid the rise of the West, the first step was to build modern nation-states. Non-Western countries have learned from this experience, so when they started to pursue modernization, the first step they took was to get out of colonial control and establish a modern state.
The second task is to develop a modern economy. Through the development of a modern economy an industry-based modern economic system would be instituted to realize industrialization. This task is quite difficult. For developing countries, the development model of developed nations is often not a fit, highlighting the necessity of finding their own development path. Modern economic development is the material basis of modernization. Without this, modernization is out of the question. Seeking an economic development model that suits the country’s national conditions is almost a decisive factor.
The third task is to build a modern society. Compared with the first two tasks, this task is the most difficult and onerous. Once frustrated, it will disrupt modernization and cause serious social consequences. Developed countries have learned profound lessons in the process of modernization, and developing countries may face even more serious problems and need to take warning from them.
These three tasks make up the basic content of modernization, indicating that modernization is an all-dimensional process involving each and every aspect of society.
Modernization in the UK
The United Kingdom is the first industrialized country in the world, and its modernization process is very typical.
In the Middle Ages, Britain was in a feudal, divided state just like the rest of Europe, characterized by a split nation and a fragmented society. The emergence of the Tudor Dynasty in 1485 marked the beginning of the formation of a modern nation-state in the United Kingdom. This process lasted two centuries, and by the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the construction of a unified country was basically completed.
On this basis, Britain entered the stage of developing a modern economy. The country saw an agricultural revolution in the first half of the 18th century, and the Industrial Revolution in the second half. The Industrial Revolution radically changed the United Kingdom and the whole world at large. Creating a new mode of production, the Industrial Revolution led mankind to an industrial society.
However, the Industrial Revolution gave rise to many social problems. The gravest ones were poverty, environmental pollution, bad living conditions of laborers, social division, regular economic crises, immorality, the loss of beliefs, and so on. These problems caused serious social turmoil and mental disorder, resulting in prevailing confrontation and uneasiness during the Industrial Revolution.
It took a long time for people to realize the severity of the social problems and the need to solve them. It also took a long time to find solutions to these problems, as it was recognized that only state power could resolve social problems. The biggest mistake of the British Industrial Revolution was to absolutize Adam Smith’s liberal economic theory, and the country’s abandonment of the social responsibilities it should have undertaken. As such, starting from the latter half of the 19th century, the United Kingdom began to address social problems, with the state returning to the social sphere.
The United Kingdom is relatively lucky. The three tasks appeared successively and were finished one by one. It was not the case with other Western countries. In France, for example, when the construction of a nation-state was not accomplished yet, the task of developing the economy had already presented itself and must be executed. Otherwise, France would be soundly defeated in the competition with the United Kingdom. The situation in non-Western countries was even more severe, with the three tasks facing them almost at the same time. Therefore, for countries that gained independence or freed themselves from interference by foreign powers in the 20th century, especially after World War II, the path to modernization was strewn with great difficulties.
China’s people-centered modernization
China’s modernization also needs to fulfill the three tasks. Like other non-Western countries, the three tasks appeared almost simultaneously. If the Opium War of 1840 marked the development trend that China was forced to open its doors to the modern world, then by 1949 it had basically completed the task of establishing a modern country. Now, a unified, independent, and multi-ethnic modern country is in place, with rising global status and growing international reputation. 
In the development of a modern economy, China has achieved significant results. After decades of hard work, it has become the world’s second largest economy, with a relatively complete modern economic system, increasingly strong scientific and technological capabilities, and better living standards of the people. Nonetheless, the Chinese economy remains in the transition from labor-intensive to technology-intensive. Per capita labor productivity is not high enough, and per capita income has only reached the world’s average level. Therefore, modern economic development is still in progress, and necessitates huge efforts. 
In the meantime, problems have arisen from the building of a modern society, while various contradictions are compounding. The people have just realized that the work of building a modern society has just started. China is at a critical juncture when it further develops its economy and must tackle myriad social problems at the same time. Building a modern society will be an important task for its modernization drive for a long time to come. As the report to the 19th CPC National Congress said, in the next few decades, “building on continued efforts to sustain development, we must devote great energy to addressing development’s imbalances and inadequacies, and push hard to improve the quality and effect of development. With this, we will be better placed to meet the ever-growing economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological needs of our people, and to promote well-rounded human development and all-round social progress.”
This is the status quo and tasks of China’s modernization. The essential difference between Chinese and Western modernization is that China follows a people-centered modernization path, with modernization implemented for the well-being of the people. By contrast, Western modernization is capital-centered, guided by the fundamental principle of maximizing capital gains. People-centered modernization is Marx’s ideal and the goal the Communist Party of China has been striving for. China is taking a path of its own, a path on which people are put first in modernization. The ultimate success of this path will be China’s major contribution to all mankind.
This article was edited and translated from Qian Chengdan’s paper submitted to The International Academic Forum in China 2021.