Foreign Fixations at the Heart of Chinese-style Modernization

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 10

Banner with the characters “Chinese-style Modernization.” (Source:

Executive Summary:

  • A new report from two high-end PRC think-tanks details the country’s path to modernization in anticipation of July’s Third Plenum but suggests that any shifts in policy direction will be muted.
  • The report emphasizes the triumph of Chinese-style modernization over the Western model and provides substantial criticisms of the failures of the West. It also argues that the PRC’s model contains lessons for other developing countries.
  • The report leverages Western individuals and institutions to buttress its arguments for the superiority of Chinese-style modernization, which suggests that the West is still perceived as (or can be instrumentalized as) a source of legitimacy by the PRC.
  • The report asserts the core message that only Party-led Chinese-style modernization can bring about national rejuvenation, and that this will occur through an economic program that is focused on “seizing the commanding heights in a new round of global scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.”


On May 4, Xinhua published an 86-page report entitled “Chinese Modernization: The Way Forward (中国式现代化发展之路)” (Xinhua, May 4: Chinese, Official English Translation). The report is the work of the Institute of Party History and Literature of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) (中央党史和文献研究院国家高端智库), and the Xinhua Institute (新华社国家高端智库联合课题组), two high-end think tanks. Its four chapters cover a lot of ground, from a swift overview of modernization history starting in the West, to an exposition of Chinese-style modernization, to a focus on some defining features of the concept, and finally an argument for concept as a contribution to global development.

The report comes two months before the recently announced Third Plenum of the Twentieth Central Committee (二十届三中全会) is set to be held. One of two topics the long-postponed meeting will focus on is advancing Chinese-style modernization (People’s Daily Online, May 1). Whether any new direction might emerge from the meeting is unclear. But on the basis of this report, the short answer for what to expect is: not much. The core tenets of the report’s message are that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will only occur by means of Chinese-style modernization, which is predicated on the leadership of the CCP. This modernization itself aims at achieving “common prosperity,” but through an economic program focused on “seizing the commanding heights in a new round of global scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.” These echo much of the other messaging from the PRC system in recent months.

Framing the Text

The report itself defies easy description. It contains several surprises in its sanctioned framing of history, a broad range of references stretching back to the ancient Book of Rites (禮記) and forward to twentieth century critical theorists, and a sometimes-incantatory repetition of stock party phrases. [1] It also lacks some cohesion and clarity. One more prosaic reason for this could be the scale of the endeavor. The acknowledgements at the end list two main authors, Qu Qingshan (曲青山) and Fu Hua (傅华), followed by the names of 37 others. The project has also taken over 15 months’ work, during which time updates have surely been required to include references to new theoretical innovations such as the “new quality productive forces (新质生产力).”

One of the most interesting preoccupations of the text, however, is its treatment of the West, broadly defined. The salience of references to foreigners and foreign research could be in part due to the intended mixed audience of the report. Its availability in four languages (the other two being French and Russian) implies its intended global distribution. [2] Likewise, many of the Xi Jinping quotes that adorn the beginnings of each chapter and are subsequently interspersed across the text come from speeches made at international fora. [3] Similarly, the report’s cover page features the English title at the top in gold lettering, with the Chinese title (albeit in a larger font) appearing below in green. This design, and the lack of the standard revolutionary shade of red, also suggests a desire to appeal to a global audience. However, a potential clue to the choice of green for the title might be found in the text itself, which declares that “green is the background color of Chinese-style modernization (绿色是中国式现代化的鲜明底色),” a reference to the importance of environmental and ecological protection in the PRC’s vision of modernity. On the other hand, the length and breadth of the text, as well as the timing of its release, suggest that it is also intended for internal circulation, as well as for signaling and messaging the party line to cadres.

The West as Tragedy…

Chinese-style modernization is characterized throughout the report in triumphant tones. For instance, it is described as “creating a new form of human civilization (中国式现代化创造人类文明新形态),” as “an historic turning point … leading the world’s new trend of modernization (引领世界现代化新潮流的历史性转变),” and as “offering a Chinese proposal for humanity’s search for a better social system (为人类对更好社会制度的探索提供了中国方案).”

To assert the benefits of Chinese-style modernization, the report feels the need to define it in opposition to western-style modernization. In the fourth chapter, five of the subsections start by explicitly summarizing the biggest relevant difference between these competing versions. These include the notions that Chinese modernization puts the people first while rejecting the primacy of capital, aims to achieve common prosperity instead of stimulating polarization between the rich and the poor, pursues a comprehensive and coordinated approach to development instead of a one-dimensional approach that leads to alienation, never severs ties with tradition and always learns from the past, and opposes unilateralism and protectionism and advocates building a community with a shared future for humanity.

The report argues at times that Chinese-style modernization is an improvement on this western alternative. The official translation writes that “Chinese modernization has an advantage over Western modernization. It has proved the ‘end of history’ theory to be false by constantly improving its system and making innovations.” [4] This is the first of several sorties into heavy criticism of the West.

First, the West is lambasted for its historical sins. A quote from Xi Jinping characterizes the “century of humiliation” as follows: “The country was humiliated, the people suffered, and civilization was left in the dust (国家蒙辱、人民蒙难、文明蒙尘).” The report then states that “this is a profound summary of the period in which China was forced to become involved in the Western-led wave of modernization (是对这一时期中国被迫卷入西方主导的现代化浪潮的深刻总结).” A historical survey of China then finds that, by contrast, “the Chinese nation does not carry aggressive or hegemonic traits in its genes (中华民族的血液中没有侵略他人、称王称霸的基因),” and is instead “influenced by a culture of peace and harmony (在“和合文化”的影响下).”

Second, the great late nineteenth and early twentieth century modernizers, from Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan to Liang Qichao and even Sun Yatsen, are all dismissed as failures, the former two in part for their desire to learn from the West. Instead, it was Marxism-Leninism which led to the CCP shouldering the burden in China’s quest for modernization. Under the CCP’s leadership, [5] the Chinese nation “has ushered in a great leap from standing up and becoming rich to becoming strong (迎来了从站起来、富起来到强起来的伟大飞跃).”

Third, a warning is offered to developing countries, citing those who “pinned their hopes on imitating and copying Western paths to achieve their own modernization, but ultimately failed (一些发展中国家曾寄希望于模仿、复制西方道路来实现本国现代化,但最终都以失败告终).” While the report concedes that “some gains were made” in these countries’ economic transitions, “many major problems emerged, such as the loss of government control over the economy and growing social polarization (但很快也产生了一系列严重问题,如国家失去对经济控制力).” Emphasis on modernization in the PRC context being predicated on the Party’s control, particularly its control over the economy, appears frequently in the text. Above all, the verdict is that “all these achievements have been made possible due to pursuing independence and self-reliance (这一切成就的取得,都是在独立自主的条件下实现的).”

…The West as Farce

The report goes to great lengths to detail the mistakes that litter the West’s path to modernization, but it also valorizes many individuals and institutions from the West to buttress its claims. Some of these are academics and commentators who have long been sympathetic to the PRC’s worldview, such as Martin Jacques, Beat Schneider, and Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Others are well-regarded experts who might not otherwise agree to the ways in which their words have been deployed here, such as former President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China Joerg Wuttke. A July 2020 Harvard Kennedy School of Government Chinese public opinion survey that found satisfaction with the CCP to be above 90 percent and that rated the PRC government as “more capable and effective than ever before” is also cited to underline the report’s arguments. Meanwhile, a “young foreigner” on the video-sharing platform Bilibili is quoted as recommending the PRC as a safe travel destination, “overseas netizens” are highlighted for their online comments, which “expressed awe at the remarkable achievements of China over the past decade,” [6] and Chinese artists are praised for their works, “some of which are even popular overseas (一些作品在海外也广受欢迎).”

These attempts to leverage the views or comments of foreigners and foreign institutions, while neglecting to cite any equivalent sages from within the PRC—at least none who have lived in the last two thousand years—suggest a strange and complicated relationship to the West within the PRC. It is true that foreigners are often used to “tell China’s story well” as an important part of the Party’s strategy to globalize its discourse power. But the competing impulses to both disdain the West while also seeking some form of legitimacy from it seem counterintuitive. These impulses are perhaps typical of tensions within PRC policymaking more broadly, both at the present time and historically. The report is replete with praise for opening up to the West and a keen desire to attract investment from overseas, all the while extolling the merits of self-reliance and economic security.

The most egregious attempt to use America against America to emphasize the advantages of the PRC system comes in a section about democracy. This section argues that the term “democracy” has been “registered (注册)” by the West, leading to Western dominance in democracy narratives worldwide. The official English version is stronger, translating “注册” as “co-opted.” The United States is not only judged to have co-opted the term democracy, but to have engineered a system in which people “have lost true freedom (丧失了真正自由).” To make this argument, the report cites the German American scholar Herbert Marcuse, whose book One-Dimensional Man offered a critique of consumerism in advanced capitalist societies, declaring that it puts people into a comfortable “unfreedom.”

Chinese-style modernization, in contrast, is claimed to “transcend formal democracy to promote whole-process people’s democracy (超越形式民主,推进全过程人民民主).” This Chinese style of democracy, which “breaks the ‘vote-only’ model and safeguards the people’s rights to participate in democratic elections, consultations, decision-making, administration, and oversight, covering every aspect of state and social life (打破了 “唯选票” 的模式,保障了人民的民主选举、民主协商、民主决策、民主管理、民主监督等权利,涵盖国家生活和社会生活的方方面面),” is described as “the most effective (最管用)” form. The irony is that Marcuse’s critique, along with much of his broader theoretical output, is equally applicable to the contemporary PRC. [7] Not only was modern technology a significant part of what Marcuse believed was repressive to human freedom—something which Chinese-style modernization doubles down on—but the idea that a totalitarian party should have unquestioned power over any society is also antithetical to his thought.


That the West features so prominently throughout a report on Chinese-style modernization is an echo across the century that separates today with May 4, 1919. The May Fourth movement (五四运动) protests, in part a response to perceived Western betrayal at Versailles and the earlier October Revolution, were catalysts for intellectual and cultural ferment, which propelled debates about China’s place in the emergent modern world. The concerns of those protesters were predominantly introspective, as are those of this report’s researchers. Both are attempts to understand China’s position in the world, and both are expressions of a progressive desire to envisage the country’s future. At the same time, they evince an unusual preoccupation with the West, broadly defined. This preoccupation comes across as somewhat Janian—disgust at a morally bankrupt civilization perceived as working against China’s interests on the one hand, mixed with an apparent desire to seek validation from that same external civilization on the other.

The report nevertheless remains unambiguous in its central message. These are that “Chinese-style modernization is socialist modernization under the leadership of the CCP,” and that “Independence and self-reliance are the only way.” The additional emphasis given to environmental concerns and traditional Chinese culture are also aspects of this vision of the future. Taken together, there is little here that is particularly new, though the distillation of so much in one report is useful. Most of the content echoes much of the other messaging coming out of the PRC in recent months. As such, if this report holds any clues for what is in store from the Third Plenum in July, then expectations for that meeting should probably be tempered.


[1] The report—at least in its Chinese version—also contains some irregularities. There are eight instances of ellipses dotted around the text. These do not appear in the official English translation, [3] and do not seem to have a consistent rationale that would explain them. (The author has not checked the French or Russian versions but would be interested to hear if discrepancies persist there, too. Similarly, if any readers have encountered such mysterious ellipses elsewhere in PRC texts and might have theories as to why and when they appear, please email the editor: The first instance appears in a sentence on the PRC’s business environment: “中国 … 营造公平竞争的市场环境,让国企敢干、民企敢闯、外企敢投…… [sic].” The official translation puts it this way: “China … has created a market environment of fair competition in which state-owned enterprises grow vigorously, private businesses blaze new trails, and foreign companies do not hesitate to invest [no ellipsis].” Ellipsis is often deployed for dramatic or ironic effect. Although for some readers of China Brief, the suggestion that foreign companies do not hesitate to invest in the PRC could be construed as such, irony is not de rigueur in authoritative CCP discourse.

[2] Perhaps this selection of languages further underlines the report’s preoccupation with the West, whether intentionally or not. It should also be noted that, while Xi, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong receive a number of mentions each, neither Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao are mentioned at all.

[3] These include the 2018 Bo’ao Forum, a 2021 summit with global political party leaders, and a 2019 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

[4] The Chinese reads: “国式现代化与西方现代化在制度建设上的高下之分在于:证伪“历史终结论”,不断完善革新.”

[5] In 28 of the 33 instances of the term “leadership (领导)” in the text, it is collocated with “the Party (党).”

[6] This gloss in the English translation is replaced in the Chinese with quotes of the comments themselves: “This is a real change,” “It’s admirable.” “这是真正的变化” “很令人钦佩” (“This is a real change,” “It’s admirable”).

[7] See for instance, Marcuse, H. One-Dimensional Man. Marxists Internet Archive. 2012., p. 18: “This totalitarian logic … has its Eastern counterpart. There, freedom is the way of life instituted by a communist regime, and all other transcending modes of freedom are either capitalistic, or revisionist, or leftist sectarianism. In both camps, non-operational ideas are non-behavioral and subversive. The movement of thought is stopped at barriers which appear as the limits of Reason itself.”