China’s long march to modernisation

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom
8 October 2008

When commentators contrast the current situation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) with that of earlier periods in its history, they typically use a straightforward "then and now" schema that takes the Mao Zedong era (1949-76) as the key reference-point. They note, for example, that:

* Mao denounced capitalists and consumerism, but the Communist Party he led now lets entrepreneurs join and China's cities have mega-malls

* Mao reviled Confucian thought, but Hu Jintao and company have founded Confucius Institutes around the world and regularly quote the sage with approval

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is the author of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, December 2008), and co-editor (with Kate Merkel-Hess & Kenneth Pomeranz) of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming 2009). He is a professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and a regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy:

"One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

"China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

"Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

* Mao was convinced that China could stand apart from the international order - so much so that when a massive earthquake hit Tangshan six weeks before his death, his immediate successors (already effectively in charge) kept foreign observers out and insisted that "Mao Zedong thought" rather than international aid would help the country recover; but after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, foreign journalists were allowed to report live from the scene and aid from abroad was welcomed

* Mao aspired to national greatness and technological achievement, but it is a later generation of Chinese leaders who have succeeded in organising technologically sophisticated operations such as the Olympic games and the manned Shenzhou-7 space-flight.

All of these contrasts are real and important - as are less often noted ones, such as that promoting male-female equality was often touted as a key revolutionary goal under Mao but gets little attention now. However, it is not necessary to go back to the cultural-revolution decade (1966-76) to highlight China's transformations. In fact, equally stark contrasts with the era that marks the second half of the PRC's existence - the one that began when Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in December 1978 - can be found.

A thirty-year frame

The approaching thirtieth anniversary of the start of the reform era underscores the fact that this era has now exceeded in length the years of revolutionary zeal, strenuous effort and isolation that preceded it. It is now itself, in other words, a historical as well as ongoing contemporary reality. The distance China has travelled in these years is reflected in the big "China question" on many minds three decades ago: "would the PRC be able to modernise?"

The answer was far from clear at the time. Deng Xiaoping, architect of the new direction, presented himself as a pragmatic problem-solver; made achievement of the "four modernisations" his priority; insisted that to "get rich" was "glorious"; and called for China to quadruple its GDP by 2000, partly by increasing foreign trade and making use of western ideas. Many foreign observers admired him for all this and wished him well. Yet there were many doubts and fears - some of which, such as that Deng might end up changing his country's economy and place in the global order too little, look strange today.

It is hard too to recall the scale and breadth of Deng's impact in the west, particularly in the United States. Time magazine - which in the 1930s and 1940s ran multiple cover-stories praising an authoritarian moderniser of that period, Chiang Kai-shek - did the same for Deng early in the reform era, and twice named him "man of the year". Many prominent western individuals wished him success; just one curious example, the then-famous musician John Denver greeted the visiting Chinese leader thus at a 1979 Kennedy Center gala in his honour: "Mr. Vice-Premier, it is with great joy that we welcome you to our country, and it is with true love that we extend our very best wishes to you and your people, on your ‘New Long March Toward Modernization In This Century.'"

At home, even some of Deng's critics - among them, leaders of the "Democracy Wall Movement" (1978-79) - accepted the notion that China's ability to modernise was vital to its future. Wei Jingsheng, for example, wrote in a famous manifesto in 1978 that China needed a "fifth modernisation" to add to Deng's four: democracy. What is often forgotten is that Wei presented political reform not just as an abstract good but as a pragmatic necessity. Without such reform, he claimed, "economic growth [would] confront insurmountable obstacles."

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)The Tiananmen upheaval that broke out soon after the tenth anniversary of the reform era differed from the democracy-wall movement in many ways, including the fact that it involved massive marches by students and workers. But the protest leaders of 1989 did echo Wei Jingsheng's claim that one reason the regime's corruption and lack of transparency was so troubling was that it was holding China back.

But in fast-forwarding to 2008, the association between economic and political reform seems frayed as well as buried. Deng is remembered in the west as much for his role in brutally crushing the Tiananmen protests as for his economic reforms; Wei Jingsheng and 1989 leaders such as Wang Dan live in exile; the Dalai Lama is more likely than any Beijing leader to be lionised in Time; and at least some of John Denver's celebrity (and political) successors have less interest in wishing China luck on its new "long march" than in ruminating on the old adage, "be careful what you wish for".

It's true that domestic and international critics of China's government continue to express concern about corruption and lack of transparency. But even here, the ground has shifted. After years of record-breaking growth-rates, few claim now that these flaws are "insurmountable obstacles" to material development.

It's certainly true that China still has impoverished areas that the modernisation drives of these three decades have left almost untouched. It is also a place where cultural and social practices either persist or arise anew that may strike western observers as pre-modern (the increase in women offering their services as wet nurses in the wake of the tainted milk-formula scandal is but one example). But China's supercharged growth in the reform years remains an impressive achievement, to the extent that many inside and outside the country agree that it will soon outgrow the "developing country" category. After all, "developing countries" don't have a state-of-the-art space lab and space station of the kind Beijing plans to build by 2020.

One effect of such enormous changes, visible in the skyline and the streetscape of every major Chinese city, is that international criticism and concern about China have been reframed. These now tend to focus not (as before) on China's isolation and inwardness, but on the environmental, social and diplomatic costs of its bursting forward onto the global stage and becoming an active global player.

A new reality

Three events in China in 2008 illustrate this change, and show how different are the perspectives brought to bear on the country today compared to the beginning of the reform era. The first is the Beijing Olympics itself (at several levels - the lead-up, the high-tech opening ceremony, and the everyday organisation). The approach of the games, for example, heard voices raised against the destruction of homes or neighbourhoods that accompanied some of the vast building projects.

This was a concern with modernisation moving too swiftly and going too far, rather than being held back. (And Thomas Friedman, reflecting after the Olympics, even mused that China's most modern cities can make their American counterparts seem "third world" by comparison, bringing up the notion that China could now be seen as ahead of rather than behind the west in certain ways - something Americans of previous generations would have found it hard to imagine ever happening.)

The second event is the protests that broke out in Shanghai in January 2008, when local residents organised non-violent "strolls" to show their displeasure over a planned extension of the city's super-fast but also noisy "Maglev" (magnetic levitation) train-line (see "One, two or many Chinas?", 19 Februsry 2008).

Many of Shanghai's anti-Maglev protestors were members of the middle class who had benefited from the city's economic take-off. When interviewed by reporters, they sometimes expressed general satisfaction with recent changes in Shanghai's cityscape, taking pride in the degree to which their metropolis had reclaimed its former status as one of the world's great modern urban centres.

But they had a quite specific concern, namely the lack of any opportunity to voice their doubts about modernisation plans that might be detrimental to their health and would decrease the value of their homes. As people who had recently been given many more choices about what products to buy and begun to take pride in owning property, they felt they should have been consulted about a project that could radically alter their quality of life.

The third event is the problems in Tibet, which erupted in the protests of March 2008. These go deep, and involve a complex combination of grievances that include a desire for greater religious freedom and fear that local cultural traditions are under threat. A further relevant factor, though, is anger at the impact that projects designed to "modernise" the region have on the local population. Here, as in Shanghai, a train became an important symbol. Tibetans insisted that the economic benefits brought by the high-altitude rail-line linking Beijing to Lhasa that opened in 2007 were primarily flowing not to them but to members of other ethnic groups, including very recent Han immigrants.

These three events are different in character as well as location. But they do have a connecting thread that reminds us of something important: the discontent that efforts to modernise a locale can provoke when groups directly affected by it feel they have no say in the process. They are thus both a measure of the distance China has travelled in the years since 1978 and of a challenge still to be met.

A reconnection

The images of the new Beijing in architectural magazines and broadcast media, of the packed Bird's Nest stadium on 8 August 2008, of the engineering marvel that is the Beijing-to-Lhasa railway, and of Shanghai's Maglev - all confirm that the big "China question" of 1978 has been answered. Yes, China was able to modernise - and become a global player into the bargain.

Now, as the extraordinary year of 2008 moves into its last phase - passing the reform era's thirtieth anniversary as it does so - the concern over China is what kind of local and global impact this even-newer "new China" will have. The tests for Hu Jintao and his colleagues in the coming period may be as great as those faced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. But none surely will be as great as reconnecting the themes of economic and political reform. The crucial step on their "long march" will be to give China's people a bigger say in how the country will move forward.

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