China’s modernisation is a historic contribution to the global socialist project

What follows is a presentation by Friends of Socialist China co-editor Carlos Martinez for a webinar on China’s modernisation organised by the International Department of the Communist Party USA.

Carlos discusses the meaning and importance of modernisation, going on to describe China’s process of modernising over the course of 75 years and its proposal for “basically realising socialist modernisation by 2035”.

Carlos continues by describing the modernisation process in the advanced capitalist countries – in particular its reliance on colonialism, domination, hegemony, slavery and plunder – and compares that with China’s modernisation trajectory. While China doesn’t have the ‘advantage’ of dominating other countries, it does have the advantage of a socialist system which “enables us to pool resources in a major mission”, as Xi Jinping has put it. China’s modernisation will therefore differ enormously from Western modernisation in that it will not be based on hegemony; it will be a modernisation of common prosperity; and it will be sustainable – the modernisation of harmony between humanity and nature.

The presentation concludes:

China’s modernisation will be a historic contribution to the global socialist project, to the struggle against imperialism, and to humanity’s shared goal of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future.

The other presentations submitted to the webinar (by members of the CPUSA and the Communist Party of Australia) can be found on the CPUSA International Department’s Youtube channel: @idcpusa

Today’s webinar is all about modernisation, which is something that’s talked about a great deal in China today, but which is not a concept that’s discussed very much in the West.

Is it something that’s worth talking about? Is it something that’s worth pursuing?

For China and for other developing countries, what modernisation means is higher living standards for the masses of the people.

Modernised industry, greater productivity, modern communication methods, transport systems, energy systems, healthcare strategies and so on add up to the possibility of providing a healthy, meaningful and dignified life to every human being.

That means every single person having reliable access to nutritious food, to good quality housing, guaranteed education and healthcare, modern energy, clean water, and to a vibrant cultural, social, intellectual and working life. So when we talk about modernisation, we’re essentially talking about attending to people’s basic human rights.

It’s called modernisation because it involves leveraging developments in science and technology; it means adapting to the latest, the most advanced ideas and techniques for meeting humanity’s material and cultural needs.

We can broadly think of it as transitioning from ‘developing country’ status to ‘developed country’ status; from a predominantly rural society to a predominantly urban society; from a technologically backward society to a technologically advanced society.

China’s modernisation plan

The Chinese leadership have been thinking about modernisation for a long time.

There were attempts in the early decades of the twentieth century to develop industry in China, but these were partial and on a small scale. China’s modernisation journey started in earnest in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic, which led to the early construction of socialist industry (with significant assistance from the Soviet Union), land reform, the dismantling of feudalism, and the provision of education and healthcare services to the whole population for the first time in China’s history.

In 1963, Premier Zhou Enlai proposed the Four Modernisations – of agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology – as a prerequisite for China’s continued development. The implementation of that program was interrupted somewhat by the Cultural Revolution, but Deng Xiaoping made the Four Modernisations a cornerstone of China’s reform and opening up from 1978, which process led to a rapid development of the productive forces and a corresponding improvement in people’s living standards.

More recently, the government has set a goal of “basically realising socialist modernisation by 2035”.

This top-level objective incorporates a number of goals:

  • Reaching a per-capita GDP on a par with that of the mid-level developed countries such as Spain or the Czech Republic (so approximately double its current level)
  • Joining the ranks of the world’s most innovative countries in the realm of science and technology
  • Becoming a global leader in education, public health, culture and sport
  • Substantially growing the middle-income group as a proportion of the population
  • Guaranteeing equitable access to basic public services
  • Ensuring modern standards of living in both urban and rural areas
  • Ensuring that the people are leading better and happier lives
  • Steadily lowering greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity, so as to restore a healthy balance between humans and the natural environment

Reaching these goals over the course of the next 11 years will constitute a world-historic achievement, and will represent a profound improvement in the living standards of the Chinese people. It will be a tremendous victory for socialism and for the developing world.

How did the West modernise?

China of course has developed a reputation for meeting its goals and reaching its targets. It set a hugely ambitious target to eliminate extreme poverty by 2021 – the centenary of the founding of the CPC – and it succeeded. It set a hugely ambitious target to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, and it’s on track to do so early, very likely this year or next.

But how will it achieve its target of modernisation? Modernisation is notoriously difficult. The number of countries that have shifted from ‘developing country’ to ‘developed country’ status in the post-WW2 era is tiny. It’s essentially South Korea and Singapore – both small countries whose development was actively stimulated by the imperialist powers as part of the Cold War anti-communist project.

Mainstream modernisation theory states that the key components are free market capitalism and parliamentary democracy. And there is no shortage of Global South countries that have attempted to wave that particular magic wand, but none that have actually succeeded in modernising. All too often, these efforts have led to chaos, poverty, and dependency.

Given the failure of mainstream modernisation theory to explain the enduring division of the world into rich and poor, advanced and backward, what people are left with is a largely unspoken but widespread and pernicious racism: an assumption that Europeans and their descendants simply have a natural flair for science, technology and progress.

As Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister of independent Ghana, commented: “in the era of neocolonialism, underdevelopment is still attributed not to exploitation but to inferiority, and racial undertones remain closely interwoven with the class struggle.”

The unspoken truth is that the principal precursors of Western modernisation are colonialism, slavery and genocide: the conquest of the Americas, the settlement of Australia, the transatlantic slave trade, the colonisation of India, the colonisation of Ireland, the rape of Africa, the Opium Wars, the theft of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Japan’s rapid rise was facilitated first by its brutal expansionist project in East Asia, and then through its adaptation to and integration with the US-led imperialist system in the post-World War 2 era.

This is what modernisation theory doesn’t tell us. But it amply explains why modernisation has proven so difficult for the Global South.

Modernisation without imperialism

Of course, China’s modernisation won’t be built on those same foundations of colonialism, slavery and genocide. That path isn’t available to China, and the Chinese people would never walk down that path even if it were.

As President Xi Jinping has pointedly remarked: China will “neither tread the old path of colonisation and plunder, nor the crooked path taken by some countries to seek hegemony once they grow strong.”

China’s development is driven by a socialist dynamic rather than a capitalist dynamic. China’s rise hasn’t been built on the basis of colonialism, of imperialism, of expansionism and the domination of other nations. China’s economic success is built on a framework of socialism, of public ownership.

So what path will China’s modernisation take?

China can’t simply follow the West’s prescriptions, but it does have certain advantages that have helped it and will continue to help it.

The foundations for China’s modernisation were laid down in the early decades of socialist construction. Imperialism was defeated and feudalism was dismantled. Sovereignty was restored, and the Chinese people became the masters of their own destiny. They exercised that power to break out of underdevelopment – to build an industrial infrastructure, to wipe out illiteracy, to spread education and healthcare throughout the country.

These foundations may not sound like much to those of us living in advanced capitalist countries, but in a world where imperialism is still prevalent, there are actually relatively few countries that are truly independent, truly sovereign.

The other advantage China has in pursuing modernisation is its political system: the fact that its development pathway is determined by the government (led by the Communist Party), representing the interests of the working people. In capitalist countries, by definition, the capitalist class is the ruling class. The key decisions determining the fate of the country are taken by that small group of people who own and deploy capital. In China – as in other socialist countries – resources are allocated in accordance with an economic strategy directed towards the present and future wellbeing of people and planet, as opposed to simply maximising short-term profit.

As Xi Jinping puts it: “Our greatest strength lies in our socialist system, which enables us to pool resources in a major mission. This is the key to our success.”

Of course, that’s also what enabled the first three decades of socialist construction, which laid the basis for today’s pursuit of modernisation. That’s a useful reminder that there’s no Great Wall between the different phases of China’s Revolution. Socialist construction, Reform and Opening Up, and the New Era – with its goal of “building a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” by the middle of this century. These are distinct phases with their own characteristics, but what underpins all of them is the socialist system; is the location of political power in the people.

So China’s modernisation is a socialist modernisation. As such it’s providing crucial evidence that socialism is the best development path. It’s confirming the correctness of Marxism, whilst contributing to the evolution and expansion of Marxism.

And at the same time it’s undermining bourgeois ideology, it’s undermining neoliberal dogma – which is one of the reasons the West is so threatened by China’s rise.

Modernisation of a new type

What China has already achieved is unprecedented, and would be impossible in a capitalist system.

China’s life expectancy has now surpassed that of the US. It has eliminated extreme poverty, such that every single person has guaranteed access to food, shelter, clothing, clean running water, modern energy, healthcare and education. China is already a world leader in renewable energy, nanotechnology, telecommunications, electric vehicles, and in various aspects of computing and artificial intelligence.

No capitalist developing country has achieved this. It’s worthwhile comparing China’s progress with that of India, given that both have a similarly massive population; both won their liberation at around the same time; both were in a similar state of desperate poverty and backwardness at that time.

India has of course made important progress since freeing itself from the iron fist of the British Empire, but this progress pales in comparison to China’s. Its life expectancy is several years below the global average, whereas China’s is several years above the global average. Millions of children in India still don’t go to school, and its adult literacy rate is 76 percent. Hundreds of millions don’t have access to clean water or electricity. Tens of millions live in slums. Sad to say, a similar situation prevails across much of the Global South.

But China’s achievements on some levels outstrip those of the advanced capitalist countries as well. The fruits of modernisation aren’t exactly shared equally in the West. Look at the US, where tens of millions can’t afford healthcare; where hundreds of thousands are homeless; where life expectancy for African-Americans is six years lower than for European-Americans; where a hundred thousand people are dying every year from overdosing on opioids.

So China’s modernisation is different from that of the West. It’s “the modernisation of common prosperity for all.”

What’s more, it’s a green modernisation, “the modernisation of harmony between humanity and nature.” It’s a modernisation that involves China being a global trailblazer in green energy, biodiversity, electric transport, sustainable food production, forestation and pollution reduction.

Capitalist modernisation has had a disastrous impact on the environment. With 4 percent of the global population, the US alone is responsible for 25 percent of historic greenhouse gas emissions. The simple fact is that humanity literally can’t afford for China’s modernisation to follow this pattern.

So not only has China found a path to modernisation that doesn’t rely on domination and hegemony, but it’s developing a better, fairer, greener modernisation.

Blazing a trail

In doing so, it’s setting an example for the whole developing world. Currently, the proportion of people that live in high-income countries is 15.8 percent. Once China crosses that threshold in the coming few years, that proportion will more than double, to 33.8 percent. As such, as Xi Jinping has pointed out, China’s successful modernisation “will completely change the international landscape and have a far-reaching impact on humanity.”

This will comprehensively bury the myth that there’s an equals sign between modernisation and westernisation.

What’s more, China is sharing the fruits of this process, via the Belt and Road Initiative, via the Global Development Initiative, via the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, and more.

We can safely say therefore that China’s modernisation will be a historic contribution to the global socialist project, to the struggle against imperialism, and to humanity’s shared goal of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future.

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