China, Democracy, and the Modernity’s Changing Definition: How the Evolving Concept of Modernization Defines China’s Future Choices

How much has China modernized? And what is the definition of modernization? Does it refer to a centralized state and thriving economy, with stable and secure conditions for citizens? Or does it refer to the adoption of modern values – liberal democracy, freedom of speech, and religious liberty? While many intellectuals throughout history have defined modernization through military and economic might (and sometimes through the adoption of democracy as a means of state strengthening), the authors of Charter 08, China’s most notable democracy manifesto, define modernization as an adherence to human rights and modern political values; they also suggest that democracy should be adopted for its own sake, not merely for purposes of modernization.

This essay examines how modernization has historically been defined by nineteenth and twentieth century Chinese intellectuals, and how their definitions contrast with those of the 08 Charter.

Consider Wei Yuan, one of the first Chinese thinkers to advocate the adoption of western technology. Appalled by the humiliating defeat of his nation during the Opium wars, Wei wrote Illustrated Treatise on Sea Powers in an effort to spur the modernization of the Chinese military. While Wei clearly admired western military methods, he ignored – and perhaps even disdained – western values and democratic government. Wei never considered democracy, not even as a pragmatic means to modernization. In contrast, prominent author and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo and the other writers of the 08 Charter argue that political modernization comes before technological advancement. Wei’s definition of modernity was essentially materialistic.

Wei’s contemporary Feng Guifeng had a more nuanced vision of modernizing than Wei, but he too differs greatly with the 08 Charter. The son of wealthy landowners in Suzhou, Feng served as secretary to the prominent statesman, general, and reformist official Li Hongzhang during the late nineteenth century. Feng defined modernization as more than just technological advancement; in his masterpiece, Dissenting Views from a Hut Near Bin, he suggested that China imitate European education, intellectual curiosity, and economic development.. Yet though he admired democracy from a distance, and even promoted its acceptance on a local level, Feng was unable to conceive of a completely democratic government, let alone one based on human rights rather than dynastic legitimacy. On a more philosophical level, Feng differs from the 08 Charter in that his fascination with democracy stemmed from pragmatism; he saw the adoption of local elections as a means to strengthen China, not an end in and of itself. By contrast, the 08 Charter states that “The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government” – a belief that democracy exists for its own sake, and not merely as a means of modernizing. While more advanced in his views than Wei, Feng arguably still saw modernization as the development of national greatness rather than the adoption of democratic values.

In contrast to Feng and Wei, early twentieth century nationalist thinker Liang Qichao was the first Chinese thinker to define modernization as a process achieved through democracy, at least in his early years. A child prodigy from a poor background, Liang passed the first two levels of China’s infamous exam system but never rose to the highest level of officialdom – a failing that engendered his skepticism of Chinese cultural tradition. Yet he, too, saw democracy only as another means of promoting national progress. Liang’s arguments for constitutionalism centered around pragmatism and expediency, not a moral belief in representative government or human rights. Indeed, in his later years, Liang grew skeptical of democracy, re-embraced the Confucianism he once abandoned, and, like Wei, chose to view modernization in primarily economic and military terms, stressing the importance of a powerful state to hold off western aggression. While his early advocacy for democracy went further than that of any previous Chinese thinker, Liang, like Feng Guifeng, still conceived of modernization as a pragmatic step towards equaling the west, a process in which which democracy was a modernizing strategy rather than a good in and of itself.

Likewise, the late nineteenth century political philosopher Chen Duxiu (at least for most of his life) defined modernization as a process of restoring national sovereignty, a path in which democracy which serves not as a goal by itself but rather as a means to an end. Chen, the son of an family devoted to civil service, was educated in the Confucian classics from an early age. However, he rebelled as a young man, beginning a career as a writer and political activist that led to his appointment as the Dean of Beijing University. Here, he emerged as a prominent voice of modernization and critic of traditional Confucianism. Although he rejected Sun Yat Sen’s view that state building comes before representative government, Chen still saw democratic government primarily as a means of transforming China into a society on par with the west. As the editor of New Youth magazine, Chen believed that democracy was the quickest path to cultural modernization. He promoted a philosophy of “destruction before construction” to abolish tradition in favor of “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy”. Though the early Chen’s exaltation of modern values comes closer to the viewpoint of Charter 08, he still shies away from treating democracy as a separate entity from nationalism. In later years, Chen would indeed grow skeptical of nationalism. However, rather than advocating democracy for its own value, he chose to embrace the Marxist movement.

Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Republic of China and the father of Chinese nationalism, also differed philosophically from the 08 Charter, as did his protege and successor Chiang Kai Shek. While both claimed to define modernization as both state building and democracy, they believed in focusing first on the military and economic development of the state – an emphasis on wealth and power over individual rights disliked intensely by the charter authors. For Sun, the Chinese people were a “Sheet of loose sand” unready for self-governance; the party, he believed, must use the state as a tool to gradually guide the people in a democratic direction. Chiang would further define this process of “political tutelage,” in which the state progresses toward an ever vaguer and more remote vision of eventual democracy. Indeed, the “democracy” envisioned by Chiang and Sun had so many caveats that at times it seemed unreal. In Sun’s own words, “the individual should not have too much liberty, but the state should have complete liberty”. Like Wei before them, Sun and Chiang defined modernization primarily through economic and military strength; democracy, if it arrived at all, was to be merely another aid in modernization.

Like Chen Duxiu, Mao Zedong defined modernization as cultural change, an obliteration of traditional Confucianism to be followed by a direct transformation from “feudalism” to Communism – an unorthodox view of history that irritated his fellow Marxists. Modernization, in Mao’s view, could be accomplished through mere force of willpower and heroic leadership – though a stagnating party bureaucracy could pose a potential threat. Mao claimed to believe in democracy but did not necessarily view it as a means for modernization, only as a proper method of organizing the party (Democratic Centralism). In Democratic Centralism, decision making begins with consensus among top leaders and flowed down to the local level, where in theory it represented the interests of the people (thus the word “Democratic”). Such a concept of democracy – combined with a view of revolution emphasizing class struggle over individual rights – puts Mao in opposition to the ideals of Charter 08, which advocates representative democracy and protection of the individual.

In the wake of Mao’s destructiveness, Deng Xiaoping and his key adviser Premier Zhu Rongji rebranded modernization as a drive for Chinese economic greatness and the rebuilding of a powerful state – a combination of Communist Democratic Centralism and a capitalist economy, usually known as state capitalism.  Democracy was no longer considered as a means of modernization, let alone a goal to achieve.

It follows, then, that Liu Xiaobo and the authors of Charter 08 have created a revolution in Chinese intellectual history. They are the first Chinese intellectuals to define modernization as the adoption of democracy as an end in itself, not as a conduit towards more efficient government or greater international respect.  

Under Charter 08’s definition, China is most certainly not modern. But is it modern even under the traditional definition, that of wealth and power? Many of the problems decried by the statecraft school – corruption, factionalism, abuse of power, and rural misery due to environmental disaster – are still with China today. After 200 years of effort, China still has a long road ahead.