In the following article, originally written in early February 2023, our co-editor Keith Bennett argues that whilst modernization is a common aspiration of humanity, China’s course of socialist modernization, which will more than double the number of people living in modernized societies, offers a fundamentally different paradigm to that of the global minority who led the first wave of modernization beginning with the industrial revolution. China’s modernization, Keith argues, “represents something fundamentally new – something that moreover will come to be seen as a trail blazer for the only modernization that is actually comprehensive, equitable and sustainable.”
China’s modernization aims to achieve common prosperity for all whereas, in the developed capitalist countries, “even after hundreds of years, not only does the gap between rich and poor remain, does the phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer persist, they are once again being exacerbated and becoming acute.”
And whilst the capitalist countries laid the basis for their development through what Xi Jinping has described as the, “brutal and blood-stained path of enrichment at the expense of others”, a process graphically described by Marx in Volume One of Capital, China is sharing the lessons and opportunities of its socialist modernization through programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.
An abbreviated version of the article was published in the People’s Daily on May 29, 2023.
The process of modernization, as it is generally understood today, essentially began with the development of first Great Britain, and then some other countries in Western Europe, as well as the United States, in the nineteenth century with the industrial revolution. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan became the first non-white nation to join this historical process.
In the contemporary world, the realization of modernization has become a universal aspiration of humanity. Yet it remains a goal attained by just a minority of the world’s population. It is in this context that we must begin to see the significance of Xi Jinping’s statement, in his report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October that, “from this day forward, the central task” would be to lead the people towards the Second Centenary Goal of “building China into a great modern socialist in all respects”. He explained that this central task entailed:
- The modernization of a huge population.
- The modernization of common prosperity for all.
- The modernization of material and cultural-ethical advancement.
- The modernization of harmony between humanity and nature.
- The modernization of peaceful development.
From this five-point summary, one can see that, whilst modernization is a global process and a universal aspiration, it can take and assume radically different forms. So, whilst China’s socialist modernization shares some characteristics with the path trod by western capitalist nations, it has more differences than similarities. It represents something fundamentally new – something that moreover will come to be seen as a trail blazer for the only modernization that is actually comprehensive, equitable and sustainable. The Chinese leader’s thesis on modernization is a significant component of Xi Jinping Thought and as such even a cursory study of its significance will highlight both that it is thoroughly grounded in the scientific socialist tradition and also that it constitutes Marxism for the 21st century.
As already mentioned, so far modernization has only been achieved by a minority of, overwhelmingly white, nations. In terms of scale alone, therefore, China’s modernization will more than double the percentage of the world’s population living in modernized societies. As such, it will profoundly change, and indeed revolutionize, global society and economy, and hence the prospects and possibilities for those nations and peoples still facing existential questions of development. Already, China’s elimination of extreme poverty represents by far the greatest contribution to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDG). As Xi Jinping put it in his report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017, socialism with Chinese characteristics “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
The comprehensive and unique character of China’s socialist modernization is further illustrated in Xi’s second point – that it is modernization of common prosperity for all.
As Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping made clear, common prosperity is an intrinsic requirement and essential feature of developed socialism. In the first stage of China’s reform and opening up, Deng Xiaoping elucidated that some people should be allowed to get rich first. The overall effect was to very substantially raise the standard of living and quality of life for the overwhelming majority of the population. However, the inequalities generated went too far and in some instances became quite egregious. This generated problems not simply across the nation as a whole, but also, for example in terms of sometimes glaring regional disparities. Nevertheless, Deng himself was always crystal clear that the purpose of allowing some to get rich first was solely as a step towards the long-term goal of realizing common prosperity for all. And, as complex and tough as that process undoubtedly is, China is now making steady progress in that direction.
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that the urban-rural wealth gap has kept narrowing ever since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012. In 2021, disposable income in urban areas was 2.5 times that in rural areas, compared with 2.88 times in 2012. This progress was registered after China successfully pulled the remaining 100 million rural residents out of the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty over the decade since 2012. China has also managed to create the world’s largest social safety net, even if a great deal remains to be done to improve and perfect it. The basic old age insurance program, China’s pension fund system, has expanded since 2012 to cover 1.04 billion people. The coverage of unemployment benefits and work injury insurance also soared, reaching 230 million and 290 million people respectively.
On a world-wide scale, the fact that China’s modernization is modernization of peaceful development is the most fundamental point of all and provides the starkest contrast with the capitalist road to modernization. The basis for this latter was poignantly and succinctly summarized by the founder of scientific socialism in the nineteenth century. In Chapter 31 of Volume One of his most seminal work, Capital, Karl Marx wrote:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”
Addressing the Oxford Union in 2015, the Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor noted: “India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was 23%. By the time the British left it was down to 4%. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised on the deindustrialization of India.”
It is this law of capitalist development uncovered by Marx that led Lenin to define as an essential feature of capitalist society the division of the world into a small handful of oppressor nations on the one hand and a great mass of oppressed nations on the other. It is precisely as a result of this division that the majority of humanity has still to achieve modernization.
Yet, the fact that the key developed nations to a great extent built their modernization on the blood and bones of the global majority does not mean that they have been able to achieve common prosperity for all at home. Even after hundreds of years, not only does the gap between rich and poor remain, does the phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer persist, they are once again being exacerbated and becoming acute. That is why Britain is currently experiencing a wave of strikes, unprecedented in recent decades, as workers from the most diverse sectors often demand not pay increases in real terms but simply amelioration of the decline in their real wage levels as a result of years of austerity culminating in record inflation. Meanwhile, multimillionaire ministers in the Conservative government are forced to resign when their avoidance of millions of pounds in tax obligations are exposed to the light of day.
Outlining China’s line of march to modernization at the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping stressed: “In pursuing modernization, China will not tread the old path of war, colonization, and plunder taken by some countries. That brutal and blood-stained path of enrichment at the expense of others caused great suffering for the people of developing countries. We will stand firmly on the right side of history and on the side of human progress.”
China’s realization of common prosperity for all, its more than doubling of the number of people living in modernized societies, and its contributions to global modernization through such means as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative constitute the path to the realization of humanity’s community of shared future. It is a fundamentally different paradigm for modernization.