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Society & Culture

My Story of Chinese Modernization

Nov 15, 2022
  • Wang Yiwei

    Jean Monnet Chair Professor, Renmin University of China

The report delivered at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China envisioned achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through a Chinese path to modernization and building a modern socialist country in all respects. It pointed out that “Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It 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.”

How to understand this Chinese modernization? Let me tell you one of my stories.

More than 20 years ago, when I was a student at Fudan University, I took my girlfriend to my hometown, an underdeveloped rural area in Jiangxi province, for the Lunar New Year family reunion. When we arrived at Shanghai Railway Station, we saw crowds of people (or, as the Chinese saying goes, “people mountain, people sea”). As there were too many people, we couldn’t get on the train, which was about to leave. I hurried to lift my companion through the train window, with the help of some migrant workers in the train who dragged her in. Then they dragged me in at the last moment.

The carriage was so crowded that there was little room for us to stand. Born into a rich family, my girlfriend    had never suffered like this, and she became reluctant to marry me — until 10 years later, when the high-speed train was built.

In my travels around South Asia, I have seen situations similar to China’s 20 years ago. Same with Africa. There is a huge need and market for China to invest to build highways, high speed railways, ports and airports in partnership with many countries. So it proposed the Belt and Road Initiative to share the Chinese experience with reform and opening-up. That is an example of China’s experience, which can be indentified as “Chinese modernization.”

Before its opening-up, China’s per capita GDP was less than one-third of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why could China be modernized? Chinese people say,  “To get rich, build roads first.” This is a microcosm of the Chinese path to modernization: Better infrastructure lays the foundation for industrial development, which then makes people prosperous. Without the better roads, many local products produced in remote areas would not have been sold all over the world. Without improved infrastructure, China would not have been able to lift 800 million people out of absolute poverty or achieve common prosperity.

Let’s go back to my college days again. When I came to Shanghai from the countryside, I naturally felt inferior and dared not talk to my female classmates. I only opened my mouth to ask for food coupons, which were provided by the government on a fixed quota, as food was scarce. I suffered hunger, as the coupons were never enough. So I offered to help my female classmates bring boiled water in exchange for coupons.

This is my life experience. In those days, because of the huge gap between urban and rural areas, the fact was that the interests of agriculture, rural areas and farmers were sacrificed to achieve rapid industrialization. Nowadays, the Chinese-style of modernization is different from others. It focuses more on narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, between urban and rural areas.

The Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway itself is losing money, and private capital can’t sustain it. So the government should step in. To achieve modernization from a basis of poverty, the government must create a market, rather than let the market regulate the country and fall into the gap between rich and poor. This is also the reason the Belt and Road Initiative is so popular: Instead of letting children swim directly in the sea (market), they first build swimming pools (special economic zones, industrial parks) to train children how to swim, and eventually they learn to swim in the sea. This is a common way for late-developing countries to achieve modernization.

 China’s experience is that it’s not just building isolated roads and railways. It is connecting infrastructure in the sky, on the ground, on the sea and on the internet, creating economies of scale, establishing a unified market and bringing about common prosperity. Without high-speed rail, for example, the local products of Miao villagers in western Hunan province would not be sold all over the world, and tourists from all over the world would not come to the ancient city of Phoenix.

How can China lift 800 million people out of poverty and achieve common prosperity? Without high-speed rail, there would be no development zones, tourism or real estate markets along and around the line.

All this requires a strong government to promote and state-owned enterprises to follow up, along with long-term planning and gradual implementation according to local conditions. Therefore, Chinese-style modernization is realized under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, whose purpose is to serve the people wholeheartedly. Chinese-style modernization means modernization for all the people, for common prosperity, for realizing social fairness and justice, for the coordination of material and spiritual civilization and for the all-around development of human beings.

Chinese-style modernization has drawn much from the experience of Western modernization and has many similarities, but it is based on China’s national conditions and has Chinese characteristics.

To sum up, China has three identities: an ancient country, a developing country and a socialist country, which are the keys to understanding Chinese-style modernization.

As an ancient civilized country, China will realize modernization as the harmonious coexistence between man and nature as it takes the road of peaceful development. Adhering to the concept that “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” China has vigorously carried out afforestation projects, even in the Kubuqi Desert. One-fourth of global greening has come from China.

The path to modernization in the world’s largest developing country is bound to serve as an example for others. Chinese-style modernization is an important reference for other emerging countries.

Chinese modernization does not alienate the human dimension, and it will not destroy traditional culture. These are all embodied in my hometown’s strategy of comprehensive poverty alleviation, comprehensive prosperity and rural revitalization. Wind energy generators are set up in the mountains where in the past firewood had been cut. Now, 5G communication allows for mobile phone signals no different from those in big cities. And everywhere one sees green mountains.

Confucius said that if you want to establish yourself, establish others; if you want to achieve yourself, achieve others. President Xi Jinping said that only when the world is good can China be good, and only when China is good can the world be better. Chinese-style modernization not only realizes the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but also the modernization of the world. It aims to build a community with a shared future and to develop a new form of human civilization through international cooperation along the way. 

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