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China’s Step Toward Modernization

November 30, 2019

As troop after troop of battle-hardened soldiers from Britain and France pummeled China’s military force with their advanced ship-mounted guns — ones that out-ranged the Chinese coastal gun batteries by far, many could only watch in disbelief as they witnessed their homeland chip away little by little. They were defenseless and vulnerable to the will of foreign superpowers (Hoover Institution). 

 

It was during what the Chinese call the “Century of National Humiliation” (The Atlantic) when China, one of the longest-standing civilizations, realized that they fell behind the innovation of the West, an imbalance that finally showed after the loss in the Opium and Sino-Japanese Wars. China, after years of fragility, was also reminded of the urgency to modernize, as to lessen the gap between them and other powers. This eventually led to the end of Imperial rule in China, which had proven itself incapable of leading the country (ThoughtCo). After a series of wars over conflict of power, the Communist regime finally came to power, thus beginning the story of modern China. Now, China faced one pressing issue: how to successfully modernize without altering their culture entirely to Western influence. As China took its first steps towards modernization, the Chinese people's deeply-embedded sense of loyalty towards their culture made them feel threatened by harmful Western ideas and caused them to cut ties with the rest of the world. However, the initiation of the Reform and Opening Policy made the people realize the benefits of learning from other countries. China then became more flexible to Western Culture, incorporating only the most beneficial qualities of other societies into their own. This elevated China’s economy to the success of Western counterparts even without the Westernizing factor that seems to be inevitable in so many other developing countries. Ultimately, it is the Chinese value of loyalty to tradition that acts as a factor of preserving their group individualism, even as China’s society advances technologically and economically.

 

To achieve independence, the Chinese had to get out from Western influence in a way where their decisions would not negatively affect the people, but at the same time, modernization required learning from the West. This dilemma made Chinese politicians very sensitive and fearful of any attempt to learn from world superpowers, for they thought it might end in China’s total colonization. It came to an extreme where, in 1966, the Communist Party launched the Cultural Revolution, mainly focused on ridding the population of any potential anyone who opposed the Communist Party or had capitalist ideologies. The campaign was taken as far as closing down schools nationwide so that students would join in with the exercises that punished school professors, bureaucrats political leaders, or any intellect with non-communist ideologies. The Cultural Revolution failed miserably, as it led China into a state of tumult, damaging the economy and society as a whole. However, its attempt to control ideas was not so foreign, and it would take years until China started opening their doors to the outside world.

 

It was not until the rise of Chairman Deng Xiaoping as the new head of the Communist party that China gradually changed their ideology of rejection. In December of 1987, Chairman Deng signed the Reform and Opening Policy, which changed the entire trajectory and philosophy of China’s view on modernization. The policy opened the doors that locked China inside for years, allowing new ideas and innovation to flow into the country, and in turn spread the culture to countries all around the world. On an individual level, it provided more freedoms for citizens; it allowed the ownership of private property for the citizens, an uplifting on the ban of emmigration, and the right to start private businesses. On a national level, the policy also opened the market freely so that international companies and emerging businesses alike could enter, therefore giving huge potential for the economy to grow significantly. 

 

The Reform and Opening Policy made China’s leaders realize that in order to achieve modernization, it was necessary to swallow their concerns and undertake learning from Western capitalist countries. People began to see that stepping towards modernization, and preserving the culture shouldn’t mean completely rejecting all Western influence, but should instead mean learning and incorporating provenly-beneficial qualities of Western methods. Just as how the ancient Silk Road during the Han Dynasty lead to increased diversity and prosperity because of the spread of cultures and ideas to China, the Chinese observed and analyzed the successes and failures in the Western system, then carefully implemented them into the Chinese system as seen fit.  Besides opening up to the world, the Chinese also realized the importance of consciously taking care of their national culture. Chinese people must assume responsibility for the preservation and further development of Chinese culture, for the defense of national culture is essential to the existence of a nation. As TheoryChina states, “Chinese culture has lasted for more than five thousand years; arguably no other culture can bear comparison with its deep tradition and robust vitality” (Theory China).  Therefore, faced with the challenge of modernization, the uniqueness of Chinese culture should not be taken for granted, but instead must be defended and preserved. 

 

Due to the Reform and Opening Policy in 1987, China has become completely unrecognizable compared to the country it was before. Although constrained, the Chinese have learned to accept influences from foreign powers, as they may provide valuable advice and insight into how China should be governed. As China continues its trek to the top, it should be known that China’s path to modernization does not rely on the West. Rather, it is influenced by the West in the best possible ways. This is different from the general trend that a country must first become liberal and Westernized to modernize, Most crucially, China’s flexible loyalty allowed it to become a superpower without completely altering its unique cultural identity.

 

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