China's path to modernization is not a slogan, but rather a sophisticated and tractable plan for realizing the nation's goals
Many Western media accounts of the recent 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China paid little or no attention to one of its central themes — the Chinese path to modernization. The most likely reason for this omission is simple: newspapers, magazines and websites in countries that view China as an economic and political rival tend to focus on either topics perceived to have the greatest impact on their national interests or developments that resonate with and reinforce prior notions of China as an antagonist. Therefore, it was not surprising that many commentators emphasized China's commitment to a strong national defense over its equally important commitments to investing in technology, enlarging its middle-income group, and protecting the natural environment.
Interestingly, there is another important factor that hinders foreign commentary on Chinese government activities — even during the most cordial periods of international relations. This obstacle, attributable largely to distinct cultural differences, is that Western journalists and analysts often do not look beyond the surface of major thematic initiatives announced by China's leadership. The Chinese path to modernization is such an effort, representing a critically important integration of past, present and future government policies during a time of heightened international political and economic tension.
As clearly enunciated at the 20th CPC National Congress, the Chinese path to modernization is far more than just a pleasant slogan. Rather, it is a sophisticated, multi-faceted approach to optimizing the nation's future deployment of resources based on detailed consideration of both current circumstances and the country's path of development.
The program identifies five specific components through which it will be implemented: 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; and the modernization of peaceful development. These facets are not simply independent applications of a common theme, but rather organically connected subordinate initiatives that must be advanced simultaneously because of natural synergistic effects.
A clear example of how the various components are intimately related is provided by government investment in cutting-edge technology. This initiative not only modernizes information and communication systems in a very literal sense, but also: connects individuals and businesses in the nation's rural areas to urban markets and the latest developments in education and healthcare; promotes economic growth and stability by supporting high-quality manufacturing and service industries; enlarges the middle-income group by expanding opportunities for high-skilled employment; and secures environmental sustainability through enhanced transportation, construction, and manufacturing.
Essentially, the Chinese path to modernization provides a tractable plan for understanding and managing the complex, multivariate relationships that exist within the dynamic, interconnected organs — social, economic, and political — that compose a nation. In this way, it enables leaders at all levels in the public and private sectors to coordinate new activities with other national goals and strategies, such as common prosperity and the dual circulation paradigm.
Just as foreigners can benefit from greater efforts to investigate and appreciate the Chinese path to modernization, it is useful for Chinese media and analysts to consider why Westerners find it difficult to understand the significance of such a broad national strategy. With specific regard to the United States, the explanation is fairly straightforward. As a result of the adversarial nature of the US political system, US government leaders tend to employ ambitiously themed programs primarily as marketing devices to promote specific legislation, the components of which may or may not offer synergistic benefits.
A prominent recent example is US President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Plan (of 2021), which quickly stalled after passage of its first (COVID-related) portion: the American Rescue Plan. As a result of political disagreements within the president's own party, two more ambitious components — the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan — ultimately were scaled down dramatically into the Inflation Reduction Act (of 2022), representing only a shadow of the original proposals.
There are, of course, historical exceptions to this pattern, such as former president Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (1933-39) and former president Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (1964-65), both of which involved major progressive reforms of government policy. In more recent decades, however, the most prominent thematic initiative was former House speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America (1994), which successfully challenged certain excesses of the earlier programs, but was more explicitly partisan in its approach.
In the current, highly polarized political climate of the United States, perhaps what is truly needed is an ambitious, positive strategy for "modernizing" US national unity. In that sense, the US could learn from China's model of pursuing comprehensive, multi-faceted initiatives enjoying broad political and social support, rather than continuing to focus on highly specific legislative proposals designed to cater to, and often exploit, partisan differences.
The author is the Zurich Group chair professor of finance at the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.