How Chinese Civilization Contributes to Modernity
By Yongnian Zheng

How Chinese Civilization Contributes to Modernity

Oct. 19, 2023  |     |  0 comments

Today, we need to discuss the global significance and value of Chinese civilization within the framework of rejuvenating Chinese civilization. This is very important because only within the framework of "rejuvenation" can we see that Chinese civilization has long had global significance. We need to discuss the relationships at two levels: the relationship between Chinese tradition and modernization and that between Chinese civilization and world modernization.

At the first level, we need to see that today's "rejuvenation" is not accidental but is historically inevitable. Additionally, we need to be aware that today's rejuvenation is the product of Chinese civilization's openness, inclusiveness, and progressiveness. In other words, today's Chinese civilization embraces both tradition and modernity.

At the second level, people have always been concerned about how Western countries have shaped the global modernization pattern since modern times, as modernization first occurred in the West. However, they have ignored the role of other civilizations, especially Chinese civilization, in shaping Western modernization.

Although modernity as a whole set of values was formed in the West from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, this does not mean these values belong exclusively to the West. China has made enormous contributions to the formation and development of modern Western civilization. If we understand the development of the modern world as a process of "modernization," then we can see the contribution of Chinese civilization from all three levels of modernization. The first category is related to material civilization. Regarding material modernization, China's greatest contribution to the world is undoubtedly its technological inventions, especially the "Four Great Inventions."

The second category pertains to institutional types and China's contribution to world institutional civilization is concentrated in three aspects. Firstly, the separation of politics and religion. Chinese civilization recognizes the importance of religious beliefs but opposes the influence of religious beliefs on politics, let alone religious domination of politics. Secondly, the separation of politics and business. In Chinese civilization, money cannot influence politics, but the West has yet to solve this problem. Western democratic politics since modern times is primarily based on money. Thirdly, the separation of politics and administration. This is the core of China's bureaucratic system.

The third category is related to ideology. China's ideology has had a comprehensive impact on the West. For example, in the field of education, the Confucian idea of "teaching without discrimination" constitutes the ideological root of mass education that gradually developed in the West since modern times.

However, it should be pointed out that many ideas have not been realized in China due to material and institutional constraints, and as industrialization and modernization began in the West, Western countries had the material conditions to enforce these ideas before China. On the other hand, it's precisely due to various institutional constraints in the West that some of the ideas advocated by the West have not been realized by itself. But since China has institutional conditions that the West does not have, these ideas have been realized in China. The socialist idea is a typical example - although China's economic development level is not as good as that of the UK and the US, basic social fairness has been achieved because China has institutional conditions.

Because the concept of modernity has spread from the West to non-Western countries due to industrial and technological revolutions, people in non-Western countries often associate modernity with the West. This has created a situation where on the one hand, the West is promoting its recognized modern values and institutional practices and imposing these values on non-Western countries; on the other hand, non-Western countries think that these values belong purely to the West, and some countries are trying to resist them.

However, this perception does not reflect reality, as modern values originate from multiple civilizations and cultures, and the West has integrated them into a system.

Since modern times, China's pursuit of modernization has focused on three levels: material, institutional, and ideological. At the material level, all countries pursue material abundance. However, at the institutional and ideological levels, China's modernization differs greatly from that of other countries since, as mentioned earlier, China's modernization is its own traditional modernization, not Westernization.

From this perspective, we can better understand the global significance of China's modernization. Firstly, when we talk about "Chinese modernization," we also acknowledge the existence of other civilizations such as "European modernization," "American modernization" and "Japanese modernization." We emphasize the diversity of modernization, as different civilizations have not only different understandings and contents of modernization, but also different ways of pursuing it.

Secondly, we emphasize that "Chinese modernization" means that modernization can only be successful when it conforms to a country's own civilization, culture and national conditions. Otherwise, it will lead to failure.

Thirdly, we emphasize that "Chinese modernization" means that we will not impose our own modernization model on other countries as some Western countries do.

Fourthly, in the pursuit of modernization, we advocate "civilizational dialogue," mutual learning and mutual exchange, and jointly promote the modernization of the world.

The author is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and president of The Institute for International Affairs, Qianhai.