Book Review

The Cry at the End of the Century

Escaping the Trap of Modernization


The Trap of Modernization by 42-year-old part-time economist He Qinglian became a bestseller when it was released in China last year. Here Huo Shui comments on this important book and its spiritual implications. (Chinese text; not available in English.)

For the past 20 years, China has been undergoing economic reform with modernization as its objective. From an economic point of view, reform means the transition from a planned economy to a free market economic system; this is common knowledge to almost everyone in China. For the average person, the purpose of reform is to escape poverty and raise the standard of living; for the Chinese government reform is the only road to modernization.

These notions about China’s reform program are full of romantic ideals, which are repeated in the newspaper, on radio and TV, in the discourses of leaders and at numerous conferences, and which have become the common belief of the Chinese people. The government utilizes this common belief as a governing tool. Thus, in the eyes of certain people, the revolution prior to the year 1949 becomes the revolution of freedom for the Chinese people, liberating them from the oppression of the “three big mountains” (the mountains of feudalism, imperialism and bureaucratic- capitalism), liberating China from foreign bullies and letting the Chinese people rise up to independence. Reform since 1979, aiming at modernizing China and enriching the Chinese people, becomes the second revolution.

Twenty years have passed since the initiation of reform. What has this eagerly pursued modernization brought to people? Without doubt, it has brought material abundance. Although 50 million Chinese still live below the poverty level, the majority of Chinese have seen their living standards rise dramatically. The Chinese, for almost 100 years, have never been so “full of money;” China has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth.

However, at the very moment the Chinese people excitedly taste the firstfruits of wealth, virtually all of them have suddenly recognized the “trap of modernization” that they are falling into. With hardly any time to enjoy the taste of the “happy meal” delivered by the first course of modernization to these long-deprived people, agonizing pain is served next. The troubles that modernization has brought to the Chinese are well beyond most people’s imagination. No longer do they have sweet dreams about the modernization ideal; rather, they dream about how to get out of its trap.

He Qinglian’s book The Trap of Modernization is the outcry released as a result of this situation. It faithfully reveals the social dilemma of China’s modernization process and frankly admits the new pains brought about by it. It points out a rather obvious truth: modernization is not a cure for all ills. China needs more than material modernization.  He Qinglian raises such questions as: While people facing poverty have a reason to pursue modernization, what really is modernization? Is the modernization process only an economic transition without a place for morality or ethical principles? What really are the roots of economic and social problems in China? Is it necessary to sacrifice ethics and morality to accomplish modernization in China? Should fairness and justice be included as criteria for measuring its success?

In response to these questions, He Quinglian says: “Unfortunately, during ten years of the Reform, no one has ever done any systematic research on these topics of political economy from the angle of ethics.” Thus, as a member of the Chinese intellectuals, she has done the “ethical questioning” regarding the object, method, effect and problems of the reform. In her book, she makes a thoughtful analysis of many serious social issues and economic phenomena, such as stock market system reform, state-owned  enterprise reform, original accumulation of capital, the expanding gap between the rich and the poor, employment and crime, black market and underground society, political corruption and money, power exchange and similar issues. According to her analysis, “Today in China, all problems of economy, while occurring in the arena of economics, have been deeply rooted in the noneconomic arena.” The origin of these problems, apart from their political causes, “has more to do with cultural elements.”

It requires courage to speak out in this way in today’s China. Daring to face reality, Qinglian has done exactly that. The Chinese modernization process, according to her analysis, actually had birth defects from the very beginning. There was no consideration of social justice and fairness in its design. It lacked not only a balancing mechanism within the political system, but, most importantly, a spiritual support system with ethical principles and moral values as its essence. The moment China was shifted onto the track of modernization, it also fell into modernization’s trap, as indeed, was doomed to happen.

However, what is left unsaid by He Qinglian should probably draw even greater attention. Why has China been pursuing only material modernization, but ignoring fairness and justice? Is there really any value in modernization if there are no moral values? Is it really true that Chinese care only for material interests but neither pay attention to spiritual life nor need any belief?

In answer to these questions we would say that the Chinese need social fairness and justice as well as modernization. What’s more, changing the heart and soul is the first thing that is needed. Chinese need the restoration of ethical principles and moral values, the establishment of the right spiritual belief system. Changing the economic system may bring about material modernization, and reforming political systems and perfecting the rule of law may enhance fairness and justice. But, if there is no determination of a spiritual belief, no fundamental change in people’s hearts, no moral values to back it up and no trust in God, but only in people, the questions He Quinglian raises will not disappear, but will only be transformed into other questions that will appear again in different forms—and the trap will remain open. China needs modernization, but not traps. The only way to get out of the trap is to seek eternal spiritual truth. Man cannot save man; only God can.

Translation by Ping and Martha Dong.

Image credit: Coca-Cola sign, Beijing, 2001 by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio