Dynamic Mechanism of “Social Modernisation” with Chinese Characteristics

 By Bao Zonghao, Xiang Kun and Zhang Shuangshuang

While the classic concept of “modernisation” and its logical extension are dedicated to “economic modernisation”we argue that real modernisation should be “social modernisation”; “social modernisation” with Chinese characteristics is “modernisation of society” based on the economic and social reality and having a strong sense of future consciousness, comprehensiveness, interdisciplinarity and sustainable development, representing the trend of human civilisation’s development.

“Social Modernisation”: Discarding the Shortcomings of “Economic Modernisation”

The Original Meaning of “Modernisation” Is Not “Economic Modernisation”

Though in “industrialisation” and modernisation from the “takeoff” to “maturely propelling” the core content of “modernisation” was still economic modernisation, almost all farsighted scholars realised the multiple meanings of “modernisation” itself. In 1966, C. E. Black emphasised in The Dynamics of Modernization that modernisation should include profound changes not only in economy, but also in science and technology, culture and interpersonal relations; in 1966, Shmuel Eisenstadt discussed comprehensive revolutionary features of modernisation from the aspects of systems, politics, economy, ecology and culture in Modernization: Protest and Change; in 1968, Samuel P. Huntington specially demonstrated political responses to and consequences of modernisation from the perspectives of political participation, power structures and change in political authoritativeness in Political Order in Changing Societies; in 1974, Alex Inkeles analysed in Becoming Modern: Individual Change in Six Developing Countries the modern outlooks on family, money, religion, child-bearing and consumption and their behavioural models, and deemed that the core of modernisation should be modernisation of individuals; in 1982, Gilbert Rozman described the course of modernisation as multiple variables including the national work division system, the proportion of non-agricultural production, population quality, income distribution, organisational change, bureaucracy and popular culture in The Modernization of China.

Meanwhile, reflections on modernisation were made by the thinkers like Bell, Drucker, Toffler, Naisbitt, Carson and Giddens, and they proposed some new ideas, such as post-industrial society, knowledge society, post-modern society, risk society, sustainable development and reflexive society, not only enriching the modernisation theory and practice, but also highlighting the deepening of “modernisation”: whether in theoretical research or in practical action, modernisation should not be limited to “economic modernisation”.

Social Modernisation Is the Most Drastic and Profoundly Influential Social Change

Social modernisation is an innovation and correction of traditional “defects of modernisation”. It is a new thought on modernisation encompassing many aspects such as the economy, politics, culture, science and technology, education and environmental governance and giving more emphasis to systematic social projects, comprehensive social innovation and all-round social development. However, limitation to theory shows the theory itself is immature. A truly good “modernisation” theory should be practice-oriented and contribute to the people’s practice of social modernisation. Many Chinese scholars have realised the numerous problems and drawbacks of Western modernisation process, but in the practice of modernisation in the regions or country, they generally lack the idea of social modernisation, proceeding from “economic fields” consciously or unconsciously and then touching social, political and cultural fields. Therefore, some regions repeatedly showed the feature of “one-sided modernisation” that emerged in the early period of Western capitalist society, triggering the phenomena of environmental pollution, ecological crisis, energy crisis, alienation of man, social diseases, urban diseases and unfair social classes and structures.

In 1966, C. E. Black emphasised that modernisation should include profound changes not only in economy, but also in science and technology, culture and interpersonal relations.

The questions then deserve attention. Why can “economic modernisation” hardly go towards “social modernisation”? Why is “social modernisation” often “marginalised”? The reasons vary, but in view of “capital” as a dynamic mechanism driving “modernisation” and “economic modernisation”, it tends to realise its appreciation through “economic modernisation”. Therefore, as long as “capital” is not “restrained” and the various disadvantages of “uncivilised” “capital” are not rejected, “social modernisation” is certainly laid aside or “marginalised”.

In the above sense, in order not to be laid aside or marginalised, “social modernisation” must also take “capital” as a dynamic mechanism. However, to take “civilisation” of capital as a dynamic mechanism, social modernisation should embed economic “modernisation” into social functioning mechanisms and the whole course of social functioning in an all-round way, attaching importance to the harmony of social classes and structures, emphasising harmonious relations that should exist between people and nature, among people and between people and society.

“Civilisation” of Capital: Driving Force Behind Social Modernisation

Social modernisation driven by “civilisation” of “capital” should not be limited to numerous criticisms of “capital logic” while ignoring the effect of “capital” as a dynamic mechanism to social modernisation, especially the fact that capital is gradually “civilised” in the face of numerous social challenges and pressures. Under the premise that “elimination of capital” is impossible, “modernisation” of capital discards the numerous disadvantages of “uncivilised” capital and plays a positive role in promoting “social modernisation” with Chinese characteristics.

Capital: From its “Barbarisation” to “Civilisation”

 As we know, “capital” is not a pure economic concept or economic logic at any time but directly associated with politics, culture, ideology and prevailing customs of the whole society. Just as Marx said, though in actual production, “capital is rather the means of production transformed from capital”, “capital is not an object, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society.”1 To attain economic independence, the European bourgeoisie born in the Middle Ages must obtain “independent personality” and get rid of “religious control” and “imperial control” and highlight the new idea of “individualism” instead of the faith of the church and Pope in God. This was also the bourgeois spirit of Calvin’s Protestant Reformation. Such independent and free “religious personality” is an important aspect of the “spirit of capitalism” advocated by Max Weber. In other words, from the perspective of the history of human civilisation development, “capital came to the world dripping with blood and dirt” on the one hand, but on the other hand, “capital” was an objective product of abandonment of the shortcomings of the medieval civilisation’s heritage pushing forward the renewal and leap of the “European civilisation”. Besides, seen from the perspective of ideological revolutions, in the “Glorious Revolution” of Britain, the “Revolution” of France or the “Revolution for Independence” of the United States, the “revolutionary idea” advocated by the whole bourgeoisie was dedication to a free, democratic and equal modern society instead of a single “capitalist country”, which was obviously great historical progress compared with the previous capitalist society.

But the problem is that in the early stage of capitalism, especially the stage of primitive capital accumulation of the civilisation that dedicated to free, democratic and equal human civilisation and society, “barbarisation” of capital became a typical form of social development driven by “capital”. Here we will not repeat More’s words about “sheep devouring men” quoted by Marx or quote Marx’s indignant words about black slave trade and plundering of colonies’ gold and silver. Just in terms of the course of production, Marx believed that greedy desire and pursuit of surplus value had integrated with the whole capitalist system, leading to longer work time, higher labour intensity and unlimited exploitation of labourers. Anybody with conscience must stand out to denounce such situation. However, though there were various moral denunciations of “uncivilised” capital at that time, the whole society was under “barbaric” capital’s control due to lack of legal restraint.

Capital’s “barbarism” not only existed in the course of production, but also was prominently manifested as “capital war”, which includes competition between capitalists causing an anarchic state of the overall social production and huge waste of social production resources. It was also manifested as “national war” among national monopoly capital of different countries vying for capital profits. World War I that broke out then was essentially a “capital war”, showing the great “barbarism” of capital itself. Besides, people’s general discontent with capitalism due to such “barbarism” triggered the whole world’s socialist movement and gave rise to the first socialist country.

The Possibility of Capital’s “Civilised” Integration into Social Modernisation

Though many signs of “barbarisation” of capital could still be seen after entering the 21st century, it is an undeniable fact that the degree of capital “civilisation” is higher and higher: today’s capital is far from what capital looked like in the 19th and 20th centuries and capital power is under multiple supervision of politics, laws, morals and public opinion; the global corporate social responsibility movement has changed from the field of “corporate public relations” to an internal link of growth in “corporate value”; “in the marketplace, this means it is essential to balance the needs of customers, employees, suppliers, the environment and community and social groups”. 2

Nevertheless, within the framework of the capitalist system, “civilisation” of capital is always ruled by “absolute power” of capital. Responsibilities, obligations and morals “beyond capital” look pale and weak under many circumstances, therefore the United States is still the country that consumes the most energy and discharges the most pollutants in the world. To cater to enterprises’ need for “capital” appreciation, the Bush Administration lowered the standards of energy conservation and emission reduction, and refused to sign Kyoto Protocol. This indicated that under capitalist conditions, there are many restrictions that “civilisation” of capital cannot overcome. Only under the condition that goes for social modernisation can mechanisms for capital “civilisation” be built and real regulation of “capital” be possible. Thus, capital can push forward social modernisation in the course of “civilisation”.

Today, integration of capital “civilisation” into social modernisation with Chinese characteristics also needs to undergo the process of compliance with the national conditions of China’s social modernisation and adaptation to growth and development of China’s social needs. Divorce from social needs will also bring about many problems and hinder social development. Summarisation of lessons from the drastic change in the Soviet Union and East Europe, the Latin American model and the “Arab Spring” shows that social modernisation requires freedom, democracy, equality, fairness, justice and openness. However, if we carry out all-round liberalisation and deregulation and promote “free policies” that Western developed countries have “demonstrated” in the primary development stage of social modernisation, then the so-called “subject status” of modernisation will be under so much pressure that the initiative in social modernisation will be finally lost, national industry will become abnormal and “internal ability” of social modernisation will be ultimately harmed.

Social modernisation is more concerned with improvement of people’s social welfare level, including various kinds of social insurance such as education, medical care, employment and housing. The social welfare level is a basic requirement of socialist common prosperity, an implication of “social modernisation” and all people’s social need. In light of the fact that China is still in the primary stage of socialism, we cannot realise “high welfare” because this will weaken the dynamic mechanism of social competition, cut social accumulation and undermine the comprehensive driving force behind social modernisation. We should advocate a moderate “outlook on welfare” and an outlook on consumption and consumption model that can develop with social civilisation harmoniously and orderly to drive social modernisation with Chinese characteristics.

Paths of Building the Dynamic Mechanism of “Social Modernisation” with Chinese Characteristics

China, as a developing country, should make active efforts for construction of socialist “civilisation” of capital with Chinese characteristics and find a road of conscious “social modernisation” by using capital and going beyond capital suitable for China’s national conditions. If civilisation of “capital” in a capitalist society is “unconscious civilisation” lacking “restraint”, “control” and “governance”, then demand for and use of capital in social modernisation with Chinese characteristics should get capital out of the “barbaric” state, “adjust” to make “capital” go towards the state of “conscious civilisation” through orderly and effective “restraint” towards capital, and really turn capital into a tool beneficial to the people. Here, three paths for building the dynamic mechanism of social modernisation with Chinese characteristics are put forward mainly within the framework of the rule of law.

Regulating and Promoting “Civilisation” of Capital Based on the Socialist Market Economy

The socialist market economy addresses the efficiency of the market economy and the problem of social fairness. The market economy has never meant allocation of resources in a purely economic sense but shaped the life consciousness of primacy of “market interests”. Once such real “market interests” become the law of the whole society’s functioning, they will naturally form a social mechanism and everybody is concerned about fair “exchange value”. “Exchange value” in the market economy directly points to every participant in the market economy. This is the most direct and realistic soil for awakening of “individual consciousness”. The market economy mechanism shapes an objective choice attaching importance to real interests, making everybody pay attention to real life and abandon various kinds of “Utopian” life.3 In other words, the “market economy” departs from Utopia in any sense in the first place, and shapes a down-to-earth universally realistic life scene. Because of such reality, freedom, democracy and equality under the conditions of the market economy are most realistically “practical”. Any freedom, democracy or equality that cannot generate interests through the market economy is regarded as “non-freedom”, “non-democracy” or “non-equality”.

Social modernisation driven by “civilisation” of “capital” should not be limited to numerous criticisms of “capital logic” while ignoring the effect of “capital” as a dynamic mechanism to social modernisation, especially the fact that capital is gradually “civilised” in the face of numerous social challenges and pressures.

Such complicated features possessed by the “market economy” itself make us more resolutely believe that we must limit the disadvantages brought by “the market economy’s malfunction” through socialist public ownership and the power of national market regulation and be good at bringing the dual advantages of socialism and the market economy into full play. Then how to make people directly feel the dual advantages of the micro-mechanisms of market economy and the government’s macroeconomic market regulation interacting with each other? It is believed that the most direct and realistic path of realisation is regulating and promoting “civilisation” of capital according to law (e.g. building of the national credit system, the credibility system of “red and black lists”, etc.) to enable “capital” to go beyond narrow egoism in “capital logic” and internalise external costs while giving full play to market competitiveness instead of shirking the social responsibilities that should be shouldered by “capital”; abandoning various “uncivilised” means of “capital” and making “civilisation” of capital an important mechanism for pushing forward social modernisation with Chinese characteristics.

Orderly Pushing Forward New Urbanisation and Leading “Civilisation” of Capital

In today’s China, the construction of “civilisation” of “capital” under the conditions of the market economy focuses on the demand for “civilisation” of “capital” in the course of China’s new-type urbanisation. This is put forward on the basis of reflecting on traffic jams, environmental pollution, ecological crisis, social conflict, etc. caused by various phenomena of “uncivilised” “capital” in the course of China’s rapid urbanisation in the past more than 30 years. New-type urbanisation is the biggest “characteristic” of China’s social modernisation. New urbanisation will influence the effect of social modernisation with Chinese characteristics to some extent. The numerous phenomena of “uncivilised” “capital” emerged in the course of China’s rapid urbanisation today are fundamentally caused by “land capitalisation” operations.

With the deepening of urbanisation, cities driven by “capitalisation” with “land finance” as the core revealed four paradoxes of “uncivilised” capital. First, it caused the “purpose paradox” of sustainable urbanisation. Second, it caused the “economic paradox” of sustainable urbanisation. Third, it caused the “social paradox” of sustainable urbanisation. Fourth, it caused the “ecological paradox” of sustainable urbanisation.

An important path of solving the problem of new urbanisation driven by “land capital” (land finance) is: establishing the “state-owned land capital administration”, reforming the administrative system integrating land management and land use, separating the government’s function of land use, and effectively evaluating and monitoring standardised functioning of “land capitalisation”; meanwhile allowing farmers’ “collective land” and “private land” to enter the urban land market, so the relevant incomes can be used to ensure the long-term livelihood of farmer-turned citizens and ensure farmers’ obtainment of real benefits through the function of market mechanisms. At the same time, this is also conducive to restraining the one-sided growth of land finance, solving social conflict and promoting sustainable urbanisation at the source.

Ensuring “Civilisation” of Capital with Reform of State-owned Enterprises as Example

State-owned enterprises naturally tied to Chinese society play a leading role in social modernisation with Chinese characteristics. Therefore, to realise “civilisation” of capital, state-owned enterprises must be main players. Socialist state-owned enterprises with “state-owned capital” as the essential feature are different from the logic of general “capital” operations in that they “must not mercenarily” pursue economic efficiency, must turn in more profit (not tax in the general sense) than non-state-owned enterprises while promoting capital accumulation, and shoulder ultimate “bottom-line responsibilities” for the cause of socialist reform and opening up. In this sense, judging state-owned enterprises from the perspective of Western mainstream economics is obviously one-sided with ideological bias.

The purpose of restructuring state-owned enterprises is to change state-run enterprises’ shortcomings of low efficiency and weak driving force for innovation and bring the competition mechanism of the market economy into state-owned enterprises through introducing the “mixed economy” model. In the age of “capital” globalisation, we should make state-owned capital stronger and make Chinese state-owned enterprises’ “capital” go out to the world with a “civilised” attitude.


About the Authors

Bao Zonghao (left)is Professor at the East China University of Science and Technology, China,and Research Fellow at Urban Culture Research Center, Shanghai Normal University in China. Xiang Kun (middle)is Deputy Director at the Shanghai Academy of Huaxia Social Development Research in China. Zhang Shuangshuang (right)is in an Undergraduate at the College of Arts and Science, Boston University in the US.


1. Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 7, Page 922, People’s Publishing House, 2009.

2. Schwerin: Conscious Capitalism, Social Sciences Abroad, 1999(6):3.

3. We should oppose two “Utopian” thoughts and models. The first one is going beyond the primary stage of socialism to realize communism featuring “a larger scale and a higher level of socialist ownership”; the second one is that the “pure market economy” itself is also a utopia and does not exist in real life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.