The West has always regarded modernity as singular. There is only one form of modernity and that is Western. Every country will eventually follow the Western path. Of course, this is a nonsense. Modernity is shaped by history and culture as well as economics and technology. There is not one modernity but many. The first example of non-Western modernity was Japan. China, having made enormous technological progress, is now thinking of the ways in which its modernisation will be distinctive and Chinese. Of course, Chinese modernisation will continue to share many features with Western and other modernities, but as a civilization-state, a huge country, and with an extraordinary history, Chinese modernity will also be strikingly different.
The West has long believed that there is only one modernity, and that is Western modernity. The origins of this belief lie in the fact that modernization began in the West with Britain’s Industrial Revolution and then spread to Europe and the United States. As late as 1900, the West enjoyed a virtual monopoly of modernization, the exception being Japan, the only non-Western country to industrialize in the 19th century. Japanese modernity was very distinct from Western modernity, and still is. But this did not stop the West believing that modernity was singular. When the developing world began to modernize after 1945, the West saw their modernization as synonymous with Westernization. When China embarked on the reform period after 1978, the West regarded it as the beginning of a process of Westernization.
The West viewed the world like an escalator: different countries were at different levels of the escalator according to their stage of development, but all were headed in the same direction, destined to become like the West, up there at the top of the escalator. Ultimately, modernization meant the Westernization of the entire world. We would all become like the West, especially like the US, the world’s role model. The problem with this idea, which lies at the heart of Western modernization theory, is that it ignores history and culture. Every society is reduced to being, in essence, the same as Western society. It is patently obvious that societies are profoundly shaped by their distinctive histories and cultures, which in turn shape the nature of their modernization and the character of their modernity. There is not one modernity but many modernities.
If modernization overwhelmingly belonged to the West until the middle of the 20th century, since then it has increasingly belonged to the rest of the world, where the great majority of humanity live. China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and countless others are emerging onto the global stage and bringing with them their histories, languages, cultures, customs, and traditions, which are very different to those of the West. Western universalism – the idea that all countries should and will be Western – is besieged by a world breaking free from the Western template, seeking to rediscover their own many histories and to forge new and different modernities and identities.
A monochromatic world dominated by the West is on the defensive in the face of a world of multiple subjects, each with their own story to tell and journey to make. We may live in difficult and fractured times, but the primary reason for this is that the old West-dominated world is on the defensive and in retreat, and a new world is in the process of being created. The difference between the mood in the West and that in many developing countries, most notably in Asia, is stark: Westerners are pessimistic about the future, Asians are optimistic. The developing world is dreaming about the future, Westerners hanker for the past.
The Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and others believe they are increasingly shaping their own futures and those of the world. Modernization, in this context, must be seen as a dynamic and evolving phenomenon. In the early stages, it involves very heavy borrowing from the West or wherever. This was the case in China after 1978, but over time Chinese modernization has increasingly come to depend on its own efforts, primarily because of its economic progress, but also because of growing US hostility to China’s rise. The balance has shifted steadily over time from learning and borrowing from the West to indigenous authorship, epitomised by firms like Tencent, Alibaba, BYD, ByteDance, and Huawei. Without doubt this process will continue and intensify. The capacity of the economy to move up the value-chain is fundamental to modernization. But it would be wrong to see modernization, or modernity, as synonymous with the economy. Certainly the economy lies at the core of the early stage of modernization, but that becomes progressively less true as modernization advances. Modernity is about the economy, technology, science, society, culture, sport, demography, gender relations, and countless other things.
China has arrived at a similar stage of development as the US in some areas. As a result, it is faced with an entirely new kind of challenge. What kind of modernity does it wish to construct? In what ways will it differ from American modernity? How will Chinese culture in the cyber era differ from that of the US? What should Chinese cities – and great conurbations like Xiong’an – offer? The US and China are both hugely and unacceptably unequal: what should a more equitable Chinese society look like and how might it be achieved? To what extent might Belt and Road offer a new kind of model for the international order? Ray Dalio, head of the world’s largest hedge fund, believes that over the next 5-20 years, we will experience, consequent upon quantum computing and AI, the biggest shifts in power and wealth the world has ever seen. Can China rise to the challenge and offer a new, distinctive, and compelling model of modernity?