Modernisation, Chinese Style

Chinese-style modernisation has given a shot in the arm of the maxim “The Socialist Road is the broadest of all” (社会主义道路最宽广) which has enjoyed an unprecedented authority in Chinese decision-making circles for decades. Perceived as a “theoretical innovation“, the concept has become a talking point at the second most important event after the National Party Congress in Beijing’s political calendar– the Two Sessions.

What is Chinese-style Modernisation (代化)?

Deng Xiaoping defined the realisation of the concept as China’s “most important new condition and issue” in 1979 while laying down his Four Modernisations for achieving economic development in a country with a humongous population. Chinese-style modernisation was further elaborated in the June of 1983 when while addressing foreign experts, Deng put forth two ideas: First, each nation has a unique road to development which they must explore and practice for themselves based on their specific national conditions  (各个民族和国家迈向现代化的道路绝非一条,每个民族和国家都应该根据自己的情况探索具体而管用的现代化道路) and Second, Chinese-style Modernisation is a novel road to Socialist modernisation pioneered by the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party (“中国式的现代化”道路就是中国共产党领导中国人民所开创的社会主义现代化道路). These “Chinese Characteristics” of Socialism were defined as persistently following the direction of Socialism (既始终坚持社会主义的发展方向) while concurrently being in accordance with  China’s historical traditions, historical bearings, reality and distinctiveness (同时又根据自己的历史传统、历史方位和现实基础而赋予其鲜明的中国特色). Thus, advocating for  reforms while continuing Mao Zedong’s quest of seeking a unique Chinese path to Socialism.

Xi Jinping fleshed out the concept’s  specificities in the 20th Party Congress report as “Five Characteristics” (五个特征), namely modernisation of a huge population, common prosperity for all, material and cultural-ethnic advancement, harmony between humanity and nature and peaceful development;  and “Nine Basic Requirements” (九个本质要求) i.e. “upholding the leadership of the Communist Party and Socialism with Chinese characteristics, pursuing high-quality development, developing whole-process people’s democracy, enriching the people’s cultural lives, achieving common prosperity for all, promoting harmony between humanity and nature, building a human community with a shared future, and creating a new form of human advancement”. Post the 20th Party Congress, Chinese-style modernisation has been highlighted as the bridge to reach  national rejuvenation. China’s targeted poverty alleviation (精准扶贫) and people-oriented development (以人民为中心) are particularly highlighted as its remarkable achievements. 

The concept is set to become more important to the Party State owing to its identification as one of the many recommendations in Premier Li Keqiang’s 2023 Government Work Report, which is  also his last as the officeholder. While poverty eradication in addition to raising standards of living, energising the markets and securing economic growth were applauded as major achievements; job creation, housing, green development, industrial and agricultural growth,  expanding domestic demand and attracting foreign investment have received special attention. The Party State also seems to adopt a more cautious approach as Li highlighted that China would not engage in “flood irrigation” or expanding money supply. Such an approach is further reflected in the modest GDP growth target of around 5%, Beijing’s lowest in decades.

Alternative to the West

Chinese-style modernisation is actively promoted as an alternative to the  prevalent Western models of development. Closely associating it with the Chinese Dream, the 19th Party Congress Report presents it as a model  for developing countries to follow. Through ‘Chinese wisdom’ (中国智慧) and ‘Chinese solutions’ (中国方案) to attain ‘speedy development’ (加快发展) while ‘maintaining their independence’ (保持自身独立性), Chinese-style modernisation promises to provide developing countries with ‘a completely new choice to resolve problems of humanity’ ( 全新选择,为解决人类问题) , which the Western model, it is claimed, has further aggravated, let alone resolved.

Xi defines the idea as representing peace (和平), development (发展), cooperation (合作) and win-win scenario (共赢). China’s development, particularly in new age industries, agricultural modernisation and urbanisation, is promoted as a ‘free ride’ (顺风车) for other countries to hitch on. Reformism of capitalist countries is criticised as leading to socioeconomic inequalities, where China is presented as an alternative model. While it is accepted that the experiences of other nations are different from Beijing, it is emphasised that a combination of Marxism with the specific reality of each country (马克思主义与本国具体实际相结合) is an alternative worth experimenting.

How successful is it?

The concept undoubtedly presents a more self confident image as it is stated “The Communist Party of China and the Chinese people have provided humanity with more Chinese insight, better Chinese input, and greater Chinese strength to help solve its common challenges and have made new and greater contributions to the noble cause of human peace and development.”

However, an ‘understanding gap‘ continues to exist between China and the rest of the world which Beijing is aware of. Suspicions regarding China’s rise within the international community are understood  as stemming from China being the only country which has ‘surpassed’ all others on ‘four aspects’ (四超国家) of ‘history and culture’ (超悠久的历史文化), ‘territory’ (超广阔的疆域面积), ‘population’ (超大型的人口规模) and ‘market potential’ (超巨大的市场潜力). Such suspicions are defined as stemming from the ideologies of the ‘strong preying on the weak’ (弱肉强食) and ‘Zero sum game’ (零和博弈).

Prof. BR Deepak notes  that while Chinese style-modernisation might not enjoy great appeal in the West; it finds acceptance among the developing and underdeveloped countries, many of which look towards China as a successful model of development.

Challenges also stand on the domestic front and the modest growth target might be read as a reflection of the not-so-optimistic outlook that the Party might have following the resurgence of Covid, heavy slump in real estate and trade tussles with the United States. Ensuring the success of Chinese-style modernisation would require not just garnering international cooperation but also addressing issues such as the plight of the migrant labour  that have received little recognition.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.