Five Characteristics of Chinese Modernization
Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that Chinese modernization 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. The Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), released in October 2022, listed five such features, which elucidate the essence of Chinese modernization.
I. It is the modernization of a huge population
A salient characteristic of Chinese modernization is that it is the modernization of a huge population. It is vital that this is understood correctly to promote Chinese modernization.
China’s huge population: a distinctive national feature
China’s population accounts for approximately one-fifth of the global total. To date, fewer than 30 countries, with a total population of less than a billion people, have industrialized. The most populous industrialized country is the United States, with 333 million or approximately a quarter of China’s population, followed by Japan, with a population of 125 million or one-eleventh of China’s population. Other industrialized countries, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, South Korea, and Canada, have populations in the tens of millions, Germany being the largest with 84 million. Portugal and Sweden have just over 10 million each, and the populations of Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Singapore are all in the order of a few million. The city-state of Singapore has a population of just 5.6 million and a land area of 733 km2. Thus, China’s huge population is a distinctive feature.
China’s huge population: a daunting and complex challenge
China’s population is unevenly distributed. The east and southeast of the country are densely populated, but the west and northwest are sparsely populated. Per capita arable land, water, and mineral resources in China are all below the global averages. Per capita arable land is less than half the global average and per capita water resources are approximately a quarter of the global average. Due to its enormous population base, issues are multiplied by more than 1.4 billion, making them global issues, and wealth is divided by 1.4 billion, making it far smaller in per capita terms. China faces intractable issues in the areas of food, employment, income distribution, education, medical care, housing, elderly care, and childcare. Thus, the difficulties and complexities facing Chinese modernization are unprecedented.
China’s huge population: the need for original solutions
The pursuit of national unity in Chinese political traditions, the interest in a single entity with multitudinous elements in Chinese culture, and the small concentrations and wide dispersion of ethnic groups are vestiges of history. All of China’s ethnic groups have contributed to the formation of the Chinese nation. The country’s extensive history, glorious culture, unique values, and humane ideals determine that its modernization has no ready-made model to learn from and no precedent to follow. Western modernization followed a phased process of consecutive industrialization, urbanization, agricultural modernization, and informatization, whereas Chinese modernization is a simultaneous process with overlapping industrialization, informatization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization. Thus, the development path and progress of Chinese modernization have features that are unique to the Chinese context.
The caldron of the 31st summer edition of the FISU World University Games in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. On the evening of July 28, 2023, the opening ceremony of the games was held at the main stadium in Dong’an Lake Sports Park, Chengdu. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER CAO YIMING
China’s huge population: contributing to the advancement of human civilization
China feeds nearly 20% of the world’s population with just 9% of the world’s arable land. Since China implemented the policy of reform and opening up in 1978, it has lifted 800 million people out of poverty, accounting for an impressive 70% of the reduction in global poverty. Chinese modernization has shattered the myth that equates modernization with Westernization. It has presented the world with a novel prospect and a new model of modernization that gives developing countries an alternative choice. It has contributed Chinese insight, solutions, and strength to the peace and development of humanity and redrawn the map of global modernization.
The salient characteristic of modernization of having a huge population means that in the process of advancing Chinese modernization, it is necessary to address issues, make decisions, and take action based on China’s realities, to neither pursue grandiose goals nor go by the rulebook, and to stay patient and steady with incremental steps to sustain progress.
Production assembly line at GAC Aion New Energy Automobile Co., Ltd. On April 12, 2023, President Xi Jinping visited GAC Aion, inspecting the company’s exhibition hall, general assembly workshop, and battery production workshop in order to learn about the company’s efforts to secure breakthroughs in core technologies in key fields and spur high-end, intelligent, and green development of manufacturing. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER DENG HUA
II. It is the modernization of common prosperity for all
An essential characteristic of Chinese modernization is that it seeks to achieve common prosperity for all. It is vital that this is understood correctly to promote Chinese modernization.
Common prosperity for all: an essential requirement of socialism
Karl Marx developed the theories of historical materialism and of surplus value, which transformed socialism from a utopian vision to scientific thinking. The science of socialism stipulates the basic principles for building socialism and realizing communism. The essence of socialism is to liberate and develop productive forces, eliminate exploitation and polarization, and ultimately realize common prosperity.
Common prosperity for all: an objective that embodies the original aspirations and mission of the CPC
The CPC was founded amid domestic strife and foreign aggression, and its mission since inception has been to pursue happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation. Regarding the objectives of development, Mao Zedong stated in the 1950s that China needed to become much more developed, much more prosperous, and much stronger, adding, “This prosperity is common prosperity, and this strength is common strength. Everyone has a share.” When formulating policies aimed at boosting the prosperity of the people at the beginning of the process of reform and opening up, Deng Xiaoping emphasized that common prosperity is the “principle,” “essence,” and “purpose” of socialism. Since the 18th CPC National Congress held in 2012, President Xi has stated, “Common prosperity is itself an important objective of socialist modernization,” and “Promoting common prosperity for all is a long-term task, as well as a realistic one; it cannot be rushed, nor can it be delayed. We must prioritize it. It will require tangible progress and sustained work, and we must make more proactive and impactful efforts toward this objective.” At the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping solemnly declared that China will have made solid progress toward realizing common prosperity for all by 2035 and basically achieved it by the middle of this century.
Common prosperity for all: the shared aspiration and ardent desire of the Chinese people
Since ancient times, the Chinese people have aspired to “moderate affluence” and dreamed of “great harmony.” Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the launch of reform and opening up, and especially the beginning of the new era, the CPC has placed equal emphasis on efficiency and fairness when formulating policies and guidelines; made positive progress and achieved new results in common prosperity; built the largest education, social security, and healthcare systems in the world; taken historic strides in making education universally available; and brought about an all-around improvement in people’s lives. As a result, people now have stronger feelings of fulfillment, wellbeing, and security.
Common prosperity for all: a fundamental difference between Chinese and Western modernizations
Chinese modernization is people-centered, whereas Western modernization is capital-centered. Chinese modernization aims to achieve common prosperity for all, while Western modernization causes polarization. Over several centuries, Western modernization has transferred poverty to developing countries, while also distributing wealth extremely unfairly domestically, making the poor poorer and the rich richer. It is estimated that the assets of the richest 1% of people in the U.S. exceed those of the bottom 90%. At the end of 2021, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned a record-high 32.2% of the nation’s wealth, compared to 23.5% in 1989. Meanwhile, the share of wealth owned by the bottom 90% of Americans has gradually declined, from 39.1% in 1989 to 30.2% at the end of 2021. Furthermore, homelessness has risen substantially in recent years in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an average of 582,500 people were homeless on a single night in 2022, 40% of whom were in unsheltered locations, such as the street, abandoned buildings, or other places not suitable for human habitation.
The essential characteristic of modernization of common prosperity for all means that in the process of advancing Chinese modernization, it is necessary to apply a people-centered development philosophy, make the realization of people’s aspirations for a better life the immutable goal of the modernization drive, maintain and promote social fairness and justice, bring about prosperity for everyone, and prevent polarization.
III. It is the modernization of material and cultural-ethical advancement
Both material abundance and cultural ethical enrichment are noble pursuits of Chinese modernization. It is vital that this is understood correctly to promote Chinese modernization.
Material and cultural-ethical advancement: a fundamental requirement of socialism
Marxism posits that material and cultural-ethical advancement are intricately linked, mutually influential and dependent, and constitute a dialectical unity. Lenin once stated that communism cannot be built without a fund of knowledge, technology, and culture. Socialism is the primary stage of communism, and a socialist society is one that is developed in all respects. A true socialist society must achieve material and cultural-ethical advancement. In the stage of socialism, only the gradual development of a high degree of material advancement and the concurrent development of a high degree of cultural-ethical advancement will create sufficient conditions for the transition to communism.
Material and cultural-ethical advancement: an inevitable trend and the way forward for the development of human society
The creation of tools serves as an important symbol of human progress that separates us from animals. Since the dawn of humanity, humans have not passively adapted to the natural environment but actively sought to transform it, constantly adapting it to our needs. When human beings transform the objective world, they also transform their subjective world. Moreover, people have not just material needs but also cultural-ethical ones. Material and cultural-ethical advancement are mutually constraining and promotional, and they complement and develop each other.
Material and cultural-ethical advancement: the result of efforts for and experience in carrying forward Chinese culture
Chinese people are diligent, brave, and kindhearted. We uphold benevolence and decency and respect virtue, harmony, and sincerity. We adhere to the Confucian principle, “The man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.” We advocate the concept that “people in the same boat must help one another,” the ethos that “compassion knows no borders,” and the need for “solidarity and cooperation.” In the course of producing abundant material advancement, we have also produced abundant cultural-ethical advancement. A great national spirit has been passed down from generation to generation for several millennia in China, becoming deeply infused in the blood and soul of the Chinese people. The CPC is carrying forward the traditional culture of the Chinese nation, promoting its creative transformation and innovative development. The CPC upholds Marxism as its guidance, conducts education on ideals and convictions, and cultivates and practices core socialist values. It conducts extensive education on patriotism, collectivism, and socialism, as well as activities to create socialist cultural-ethical standards. It also promotes revolutionary culture, develops advanced socialist culture, and constantly advances the development of a modern Chinese civilization.
Material and cultural-ethical advancement: an important difference between Chinese and Western modernizations
Chinese modernization seeks both material abundance and cultural-ethical abundance. Xi Jinping has stressed that to build a strong modern socialist country, not only must we bolster our material foundations, but we must also strengthen our ideals and values. During modernization, the ideologies and social systems of Western countries have led to greater concern for material matters to the neglect of concern for people, and a focus on the material rather than on the spiritual, resulting in rampant materialism, greater selfishness, loss of beliefs, and cultural impoverishment. Western modernization has also been accompanied by decadent lifestyles and moral impairment, with widespread drug trafficking and abuse, prostitution, gun violence, racial discrimination, theft and robbery, and other criminal activities affecting Western societies. According to statistics from the gunviolencearchive.org website, the number of mass shootings in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, with 43,341 deaths, 37,763 people injured, and 636 mass shootings, an average of two per day, in 2022. The U.S. also has the world’s highest firearm-related homicide rate. According to a survey on drug use in the U.S., 59.3 million people over the age of 12 abused drugs in 2020, with 49.6 million of them smoking marijuana.
The noble pursuit of modernization involving material and cultural-ethical advancement means that in the process of advancing Chinese modernization, it is necessary to consolidate the material foundation for modernization and improve the material conditions for people’s wellbeing, as well as to strive to develop advanced socialist culture, foster strong ideals and convictions, and carry forward China’s cultural heritage, thereby promoting all-around material abundance as well as people’s well-rounded development.
IV. It is the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature
Respect for nature, adapting to it, protecting it, and promoting harmony between humanity and nature are distinctive characteristics of Chinese modernization. It is vital that this is understood correctly to promote Chinese modernization.
Harmony between humanity and nature: a requirement for the survival and development of humanity
Nature is the source of life, providing the basic conditions humans need to survive and thrive. Humanity and nature are a community of life. There is no replacement for the natural environment, but we may not realize how truly precious it is until it is damaged beyond repair. Our eco-conservation efforts will have a bearing on the future of humanity, and no country can opt out or go it alone.
Harmony between humanity and nature: a tradition of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation
The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have always respected and loved nature, having long recognized the importance of respect for and adapting to nature to the survival and development of humankind. The ancient Chinese had several sayings about nature that illuminate their views: “Heaven, Earth, and I were produced together, and all things and I are one”; “Heaven does not speak, yet the four seasons move in order. Earth does not speak, yet the myriad beings come to life”; “Each of the myriad things must be in a harmonious relation with Heaven in order to grow, and each must obtain from Heaven the proper nurture in order to become complete”; and “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is.” Regarding labor and production, people were advised, “If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fish and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hill-forests only at the proper times, the wood will be more than can be used”; “Act according to the seasons and the nature of the land”; and “Axes must not enter the forest when the plants and trees are flourishing, lest their lives be cut short.” In Rites of Zhou, it is recorded that officials appointed to protect mountains, forests, and royal gardens stipulated the proper times to fell trees and restricted hunting and foraging activities, including prohibiting the use of poisoned arrows, with punishments for transgressors. Thus, the ancient Chinese paid great attention to the unity of humanity and nature and understood the links between the natural world and human civilization, so they acted in accordance with the laws of nature in their work and other activities.
Harmony between humanity and nature: the result of practice and experience
Since the founding of the PRC, especially since the launch of reform and opening up, our understanding of the importance of environmental protection has gradually deepened. During China’s development, we have witnessed that violating the laws of nature results in environmental pollution and damage to ecosystems, generating considerable public anxiety, and we have come to realize that we must not sacrifice the environment for fleeting economic development. Environmental protection is a cause that benefits the present generation as well as future ones. For the sake of the Chinese people, the CPC has formulated with the utmost determination and effort policies and measures to protect and manage the ecological environment, which it is striving to implement. President Xi has proposed a new development philosophy based on innovation, coordination, sustainability, openness, and sharing, as well as introduced the concept that lucid waters and lush mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver, which can guide environmental governance in the course of advancing Chinese modernization. Thanks to the sustained efforts of the entire nation, environmental conservation in China has undergone historic, transformative, and comprehensive theoretical and practical changes, including a major shift from focusing on remediation to systematic governance, from responding reactively to responding proactively, from being a participant in global environmental governance to being a leader, and from practical exploration to being guided by science.
Harmony between humanity and nature: a notable difference between Chinese and Western modernizations
Due to differences in their social systems and development philosophies, many Western countries followed the path of “pollute first, clean up later” during their modernization. In addition to creating enormous material wealth, they precipitated in a scramble for natural resources and disrupted the original balance and cycles of ecosystems, straining the relationship between humanity and nature. The top eight environmental disasters in the world during the 20th century, which all occurred in Western countries, had an enormous impact on the environment and public life, shocking the world with the massive losses they caused. For example, photochemical smog in Los Angeles led to nearly a thousand deaths. The Great Smog of London, which first affected the British capital in December 1952, caused 4,000 deaths within a few days, as well as a further 8,000 deaths from respiratory diseases in the subsequent two months, and London experienced a further 12 severe smog events in 1956, 1957, and 1962. In Japan, nearly 1,000 people contracted Minamata disease, and more than 20,000 people were affected by the outbreak.
Bulldozers at a high-standard farmland development site in Shenming Village, Pucheng County, Fujian Province, March 2, 2023. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JIANG KEHONG
The distinctive feature of modernization of harmony between humanity and nature means that in the process of advancing Chinese modernization, it is necessary to uphold the principles of prioritizing resource conservation and environmental protection and letting nature restore itself, protect nature and the environment as we do our own lives, and continue to pursue a model of sound development featuring improved production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems to ensure the sustainable development of the Chinese nation.
V. It is the modernization of peaceful development
Adhering to peaceful development, striving to safeguard world peace and development as we pursue our own development, making greater contributions to world peace and development through our own development, and building a global community of shared future are prominent characteristics of Chinese modernization. It is vital that this is understood correctly to promote Chinese modernization.
Peaceful development: the genes of Chinese civilization
The Chinese people and nation have been peace-loving since ancient times. The ancient Chinese believed that “When the path is just, the common good will reign over across the country,” and advocated “being benevolent and living in friendship with neighbors” as well as “peace among all nations,” and they profoundly understood that “Regardless of size, a state partial to war will perish.” In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zheng He commanded the world’s largest fleet of ships on seven voyages to the West, reaching as far as the coast of Africa, where they traded silk, tea, and porcelain and conducted cultural exchanges in the countries they visited, all without occupying a single inch of others’ territory. Thus, a love of peace runs through the veins of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.
Peaceful development: the correct strategic choice for the Chinese people
Owing to imperialist invasions and the corruption of feudal rulers in modern times, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society. With the country humiliated, the people distressed, and Chinese civilization plunged into darkness, the Chinese nation suffered unprecedented calamities. As a result of these experiences, the Chinese people sympathize greatly with countries and peoples around the world that have suffered due to war and the bullying of other nations. The Chinese people desire peace more ardently, and the Chinese nation is more resolute in its opposition to war, than anyone else. Following the founding of the PRC, China proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and has stayed true to the principle of equality of all countries big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor. After the launch of reform and opening up, China declared peace and development to be contemporary themes around the world and adjusted its relationships with major powers while strengthening solidarity and cooperation with developing countries. In the new era that began in 2012, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has pursued major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, pushed for the development of a new type of international relations, and cherished humanity’s shared values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom. It has promoted higher-standard opening up, developed the Belt and Road Initiative to a high standard, and strived to build a global community of shared future. The CPC’s proposal to follow a path of peaceful development and its inclusion in both the Constitution of the CPC and legal enshrinement in the Constitution of the PRC are world firsts. The Constitution of the CPC is its general charter for self-governance. It is the basic law of the CPC. The Constitution of the PRC is the general charter for the CPC and the people in governing the country. Peaceful development is thus stipulated in the highest form of CPC and state laws and regulations. China is managing to rebuild its international image and increase its international influence, moving ever closer to the center of the global stage.
Peaceful development: the trend of world development and the correct path for humanity
The fate of the world must lie in the hands of all countries. Global changes of a magnitude unseen in a century are occurring, the old colonial systems have collapsed, and the confrontation between blocs of the Cold War is long gone. Many emerging markets and developing countries are developing rapidly, and countries all over the world are becoming more interconnected and interdependent. Nevertheless, humanity still faces a myriad of challenges. Regional flashpoints are continually emerging, conventional and non-conventional security threats are becoming inextricably linked, and deficits in peace, development, security, and governance are growing. What is happening to the world? And how should we respond? The Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilizations Initiative proposed by President Xi are three pillars in the construction of a global community of shared future, and they contribute Chinese insight and strength toward solving humanity’s common problems.
Peaceful development: a major difference between Chinese and Western modernizations
In the course of modernization, some Western countries resorted to war, colonization, and plunder. That brutal and bloodstained path of enrichment at the expense of others inflicted great suffering on the people of developing countries. Following the “discovery” of the New World of the Americas, colonists adopted a policy of genocide that drastically reduced the number of Native Americans from more than 5 million to 250,000. In modern history, the evil slave trade, which lasted for three centuries, reduced the number of black people on the African continent by nearly 100 million. In more than 300 years from the end of the 15th century, colonists plundered 2.5 million kilograms of gold and 100 million kilograms of silver from Central and South America. In 1840, Western aggressors launched the Opium War against China, forcing open China’s previously closed doors using their powerful ships and cannons. For more than a century afterward, imperialist countries of various sizes invaded China, compelling it to sign as many as 745 unequal treaties. Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki and extracted compensation of 231 million taels of silver from China. The Eight-Nation Alliance, which included the United Kingdom, the United States, and France, signed the International Protocol of 1901 with China, which extracted compensation of 450 million taels of silver to be paid in 39 years, amounting to 980 million taels including interest. These events are part of the dishonorable history of Western modernization and mark the original sin of capitalism.
The prominent characteristic of modernization of peaceful development means that in the process of advancing Chinese modernization, we must stand firmly on the right side of history and on the side of human progress; dedicate ourselves to peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit; strive to safeguard world peace and development as we pursue our own development; and make greater contributions to world peace and development through our own development.
Since the founding of the PRC, and particularly since the launch of reform and opening up, China has completed in a few decades what it took Western developed countries centuries to achieve in industrialization, creating the miracles of rapid economic growth and long-term social stability, as well as providing vast prospects for realizing national rejuvenation. The past and present amply demonstrate the feasibility and stability of Chinese modernization and that it is a broad and the only correct path to a strong country and national rejuvenation.
Qu Qingshan is President of the Institute of Party History and Literature of the CPC Central Committee.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 16, 2023)