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Chinese modernization advances amid cultural diversity

CHEN HENG | 2023-02-23 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech to the United Nations Office in Geneva on Jan. 18, 2017, “The diversity of human civilizations not only defines our world, but also drives the progress of humankind.” Diversity in social development is a prerequisite for a nuanced understanding of the world. To realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we put forward the theory of Chinese modernization. Chinese modernization draws on all the excellent achievements of human civilization and represents the development and direction of progress for human civilization. Chinese modernization, different from the Western version, is a new form of human civilization and will enrich the historical experience of civil society.

Cultural diversity is vital

In the pre-capitalist era, up to the 15th and 16th centuries, there were peaceful interactions and violent conflicts between nomadic and agrarian societies, earmarking the pattern of human society’s early development. By the 15th century, human society began to move from scattered to integrated. Marx wrote that “The circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital. The production of commodities, their circulation, and that more developed form of their circulation called commerce, these form the historical groundwork from which it rises. The modern history of capital dates from the creation in the 16th century of a world-embracing commerce and a world-embracing market.” World trade ushered in 500 years of modern European outward expansion, which also represents 500 years of capitalism moving from the periphery to the center of the world stage.

In those 500 years, the West quickly left the rest of the world and other civilization behind, through a series of “revolutions,” especially the massive impact of the industrial revolution. The Western world made a series of achievements in politics, economics, ideology, culture, science and technology, creating a new type of society, which took over the world at the end of the 19th century. These 500 years did indeed witness a great increase in productivity and a great transformation in the means of production, somewhat convincing Europeans that this model of development held the universal truth.

Does the world have an eternal center? How did the “center” and periphery form and evolve? How did Western Europe move from the periphery to the center in five hundred years? The present builds on the past, just as the present lays the foundation for the creation of the future. Human civilization constantly advances by building upon predecessors’ accomplishments in every stage of development, and the further development of human civilization should be informed by these past experiences and lessons. Contemporary China is fully capable of creating a new modernization theory and a new form of human civilization based on a summary of its own experiences.

Beyond Western modernization 

Needless to say, the West has indeed brought many benefits to human society, but the history is a dark one—it includes the occupation of “ownerless” land, the slaughter of indigenous people, looting natural resources, establishment of colonies, assimilation of foreign cultures, and so on. The process of Western modernization, in essence, builds from colonialism and imperialism. 

In the contemporary capitalist system, both development and underdevelopment are part of a single historical process. This is the reality and historical legacy of colonialism: that a few people in powerful core states benefit by exploiting the vast majority of the periphery, semi-periphery, and weaker segments of those core states. Imperialism and hegemony led to a series of wars and conflicts in the late 19th century, as well as two world wars, causing heavy casualties across the globe. The resulting geopolitical schisms have not been fully resolved and have even resurfaced to polarize global politics today.

Western modernization theory overlooks diversity in human society’s development, forcing a one-size-fits-all development path onto different civilizations. This practice equates modernization to imitating Western countries’ basic political and economic systems and accepting Western society’s worldviews and values. 

However, the history of the 20th century tells us that more than one late-comer country suffered severe consequences as a result of blindly following Western modernization theories and practices. Western modernization has undoubtedly led to industrial growth and increased social welfare, but it has also caused underdevelopment and increased dependency in some social groups and regions, and the results of development have been distributed with increasing inequity. Moreover, even for Western countries, under the influence of multiple factors such as tradition, resource endowments, and international status, the modernization paths of various countries are not the same. There has never been a single modernization model.

The theory of Western modernization also conceals the political agendas of Western countries and has increasingly become an ideological expression which aims to safeguard its own power and the inequality of the international system. This theory appeared in the Cold War period and maintains that Western capitalism is a universal truth, thus denying the value of non-capitalist society and the possibility of new forms of social development in the world. 

Western modernization theory constructs a false binary where societies are either backward or advanced. This theoretical model suggests the Western path to modernization is the only way for the non-Western world to advance. In this imagined future, Western politics, culture, economy, and ideology will bring huge economic benefits to the future development of the non-Western world: The future economy is market-based capitalism; The culture will be secularist and nationalistic; The politics will involve parties, parliaments, elections; The Western model of democracy is thus the most reasonable and appropriate form of political development. In the end, this prospective reality ultimately serves the global hegemony of the West.

In a way, Western modernization simplifies the development of human society into a single approach in theory and practice, legitimizes examples of hegemony in the history of contemporary developed countries, and suggests that “the West is the best.” Those who fully embrace Western modernization are essentially accepting that there is only one path forward, to follow the West politically, economically, and culturally.

To build a human community with a shared future, we must break away from rigid, singular, and simplified concepts of development, examine how different regions developed at different times and the effectiveness of development within specific historical contexts, to understand how the modern world arrived where it is today. Only through in-depth study of global history and deep exploration of human knowledge can we understand the meaning of global development and enrich and perfect the methods and paths we need for current development.

Quest for new forms

As the report to the 20th CPC National Congress stated, Chinese modernization is “the modernization of peaceful development.” In retrospect, China’s path adds unique value to world history.

The Chinese modernization is a modernization process that features unity in diversity, openness, and inclusiveness, which are the roots of the Chinese civilization’s vitality. Equality, mutual learning, dialogue, inclusiveness, understanding, and respect are how we treat other civilizations. Therefore, Chinese modernization represents the development direction of human civilization’s progress. It advocates exchanges, mutual learning, and coexistence among civilizations, carries forward the common values of mankind as embodied by their respective civilizations, and shares knowledge and wisdom to help shape the world.

Chinese modernization is the pursuit of a more elegant and ethical modernization. In the era of globalization, people, objects, ideas, and culture have transcended the boundaries of time and space. Without the inspiration of aesthetics and good taste, civilization will not endure. Therefore, the establishment of the industrial chain and technological chain, as well as widely accepted knowledge chains, value chains, and moral chains have become urgent projects for Chinese modernization. Chinese academic research is a part of Chinese culture and a component of Chinese modernization, as scholars shoulder a responsibility for the development and promotion of Chinese culture to advance toward further elegance and morality.

Chinese modernization is a modernization that has a global vision and could be shared by the world. At the beginning of the 21st century, the three concepts of sharing, knowledge, and the economy have been increasingly combined through digital media, which is also an important component of Chinese modernization. At the same time, Chinese modernization provides a new choice for developing countries to eliminate poverty and expand their development. The Chinese plan to realize modernization for itself has the potential to serve humanity as a whole.

Chinese modernization is an attempt to realize a human community with a shared future. The human community with a shared future aims to accommodate the legitimate concerns of other countries while pursuing each nation’s own interests. Mankind has only one Earth and all countries live in the same world. The scarcity and limitation of resources, the deterioration of the environment, and the challenge of artificial intelligence all require us to work together and find a way to preserve the Earth’s public resources and even the human race for future generations.

Only by understanding the world can we have a better understanding of civilization and better carry out the unique modernization paths of different nations and countries. Chinese modernization is a new exploration, made on the basis of summarizing the historical experience of the Chinese nation. It aims to break the myth that Western modernization is a panacea and inevitably the only path to advance human society. It changes the world pattern in which the development of modern human civilization is dominated by Western civilization and presents a new trend with diversified development of multiple forms of civilization.

Chen Heng is a professor of world history from the School of Humanities at Shanghai Normal University.

Edited by YANG XUE