What has China done right in its path to modernization?

By Ding Heng

Probably few people could imagine that China was poorer than Africa more than 40 years ago. According to World Bank data, China’s GDP per capita in 1978 was less than a third of the level in Sub-Saharan Africa at the time. Over the past few decades, China has become a major economic power through what is known as “Chinese modernization”. This term was a highlight in Xi Jinping’s report to last year’s 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). During this year’s “Two Sessions” political gathering, this term has once again drawn attention.

Modernization in the West began in as early as the late 18th century, but China’s modernization has mostly taken place over the past few decades. In other words, China has in dozens of years completed a process that took the West hundreds of years. Take urbanization rate, a key modernization indicator, as an example. 15% of the Europeans were urban dwellers in 1800. It took Europe 150 years to move from 15% in 1800 to 50% in 1950. By comparison, it took China less than 35 years to move from less than 18% in 1978 to over 50% in 2011.

Western modernization was, at least to some degree, fueled by colonial exploitations, which is no longer a tolerable practice in the world today. In contrast, China has never colonized any country, and China hasn’t even fought a war for decades, so China’s development path has shown that it’s possible to modernize through equality-based, peaceful means.

Perhaps the most important thing China has done right in its modernization is to have insisted on effectual political leadership. In China, this leadership is executed by the CPC. When China’s economy was facing a near dead end in the late 1970s, the CPC took a bold decision to embark on the reform and opening-up. When reform faced obstacles in the early 1990s due to the concerns caused by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it was once again the party that pushed for acceleration of the reform and opening-up. During the party’s 20 th National Congress, Xi Jinping made it clear that China will only open wider to the outside world. The CPC’s governance has ensured that there is a large degree of policy continuity for China’s development agenda.

Apart from policy continuity, political leadership has prevented China from copying Western models. When the Cold War ended, the Washington Consensus – embracing a combination of market forces and multi-party electoral system – became a tempting idea for many developing countries. Disappointingly, that didn’t seem to have delivered them prosperity. In his article “The Post Washington Consensus Consensus”, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, says that the Washington Consensus policies failed to efficiently handle the economic structures within developing countries. In the case of China, it has learned from the West, having incorporated market forces into its economic system. Overall, however, China has refrained from embracing Washington Consensus.

In addition, political leadership has played a central role in seeking effective solutions to the challenges that arose in China’s modernization process. Around a decade ago, corruption had reached a point where it could potentially affect the stability in China. That prompted the CPC to sustain a prolonged battle against corruption. Over the last decade, more than 4.6 million party members have been investigated, with formal criminal charges brought against more than 550 high- ranking officials. In 2014, China ranked 100 th in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2022, China’s ranking climbed to 65 th .

Industrial pollution is another challenge. In the realm of air pollution, the past decade has seen Chinese authorities declare a war on smog. In more than 70 cities tracked by the government, the average yearly number of heavy smoggy days has declined 87% over the past ten years.

In order to limit the economic impact of tackling pollution, effective policies need to be rolled out in a timely manner to incubate greener development after polluting industries are phased out. China seems to perform quite well in this regard. Xi Jinping first mentioned his signature slogan “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as gold and silver mountains” on a 2005 trip to a village in the eastern province of Zhejiang when he was the top provincial official. After bidding farewell to mining, that village has turned itself into a hot tourism spot by utilizing other resources. Its transformation represents a typical case illustrating China’s successful management of the relationship between economic development and environmental protection.

In the southwestern city of Guiyang, for instance, the proportion of green economy is likely to hit 49% of the city’s GDP by the end of 2023. Just like in the West, modernization has also led to wealth gap in China. Rising inequality is unacceptable to Chinese authorities, and this is the mentality behind China’s success in eradicating extreme poverty. In a Western electoral system, probably only a few politicians will care about people living in extreme poverty, because the votes from these people, usually limited, don’t matter in elections.

That’s probably why homelessness remains an unresolved issue in the US, the world’s most powerful country. In China’s political system, all possible resources could be tapped into in an effort to lift people out of poverty.

Effectual political leadership in China doesn’t mean the state wants to control everything. In fact, the Chinese government has streamlined a large chunk of its administrative powers over the last decade in a move to improve the business environment in the country. This is why the number of private enterprises in the country has soared from less than 11 million in 2012 to more than 47 million in 2022.

However, in areas where there is an absolute need for state responsibility, political power has been strengthened in order to push things through. Issues such as corruption, pollution and inequality are arguably universal problems that are likely to pop up in every country’s modernization process. In addition to Western practices, less developed countries can look to China as well for possible inspirations on how to address these challenges.

That being said, political leadership building doesn’t mean that other countries need to copy China’s system. At the end of the day, China’s model is the one that only suits China the best. In addition to role of the CPC, the system is also derived from China’s political tradition in history. This is why Chinese officials keep telling the

international community that each country deserves the right to pursue a path in accordance with its own conditions.

[The author is a host with CGTN Radio. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Contact the author: [email protected]]