China has emerged as a major world power. The country’s emergence from obscurity into planned modernization has surprised many. The introduction of a market economy has released the Chinese people’s previously-repressed desire for material wealth, while giving them the means to attain it as well.
Would China have been able to achieve the same economic progress under a non-Communist regime, say under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party)? Taiwan’s economic take-off in the 1970s under Jiang Jieshi’s (Chiang Kai-shek’s) rule and the prosperity that followed may tempt some staunch anti-Communists to say yes. Jiang found a way to combine one-party rule and rapid development, while stressing the importance of traditional values.
There exist striking similarities between China’s modernization during the 1930s and its success today. The difference in ideology ― military dictatorship versus communism ― does not seem to dictate the way China has chosen to modernize.
In the 1930s Jiang Jieshi and his elite Kuomintang members developed a concept to execute their plans to modernize China. This concept contained three main elements.
The first concerned remolding the Confucianist message to forge a Chinese identity. China’s traditional Confucian philosophy was at the foundation of Jiang’s concept, and in order to give the nation more moral cohesion, Jiang revived the state cult of Confucius. Jiang himself was a serious believer of Confucian philosophy.
During China’s Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was disregarded. But nowadays it is back. On the campus of Beijing’s prestigious Qinghua University there used to be a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong. Now there stands a statue of Confucius. Also, on Tiananmen Square a 9.5 meter bronze sculpture of Confucius stands opposite Mao’s portrait. Placing the Confucius statue at China’s political heart is the communist government’s most visible endorsement yet of the 2,000-year-old sage.
The idea of the CCP leadership is that China needs its own identity as a counterweight to the growing numbers of Christians in the country. Buddhism originally came from India and Christianity from the West. Both are religions not accepted by the CCP. The number of Christian believers is about 70 million but is expected to grow considerably down the road. To counter the surge, the CCP wants to bring back Confucianism, providing the Chinese people with an identity they are familiar with.
The second element is the New Life Movement. In 1934, Jiang launched a campaign to enhance national cohesion by inculcating Confucian morals in people. A practical plan was developed to turn Chinese people into more civilized citizens. Jiang had observed people’s bad habits like laziness, dishonesty, corruption, lack of hygiene, etc. The plan provided them with daily rules to follow. The New Life Movement was supervised and coordinated by the Kuomintang.
Despite its name, the New Life Movement actually taught people the four ancient Chinese virtues. These virtues had in ancient times helped make China a mighty nation, and now they were revived to serve as a foundation for society again.
A look at the methods that the CCP is using to improve people’s living standards shows that they are the same as those used in the 1930s.
The third element is the Westernization of the military. Jiang Jieshi was a professional soldier who thought that the unification and strengthening of China depended on the establishment of a strong military. It was a group of people faithful to him who gave shape to this militarization. “Blood and Ironism” became a catchword for a radical militarization of the Kuomintang under the aegis of this group.
This development perhaps underlines the confusion among many Chinese between modernization and militarization. China’s military was probably the most modern sector of China in the 1930s. The CCP today put forward the strategy of “making our country prosperous and our armed forces powerful.” This is basically the same method that Jiang followed.
Comparing Jiang’s concept with today’s development in China, we find striking agreements between Jiang’s methods and goals and those of the CCP.
Despite the differences in their perspectives, they both seek to offer a better life and prosperity to the Chinese people basically through planned economic development. For instance, Shanghai in the 1930s followed a development model shaped by a group of Kuomintang elite members. Guided by Jiang’s idea, they sought to turn Shanghai into an international city like New York with a respected stock market.
Under the communist rule, Shanghai’s reign as the most cosmopolitan city in China ended quickly. However, the city recovered from a forgotten and backward place to a city of enormous growth. After years of being closed off to the rest of the world, Shanghai is rapidly regaining its reputation as a cosmopolitan city. Shanghai again is widely regarded as the financial center of mainland China, a progressive enterprising city open to new ideas.
The economic development and modernization of China today had been initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s on the basis his preaching that “Poverty is not socialism and being rich is glorious.” Deng’s another slogan, “One country, two systems,” appears to have been well understood by the Chinese people. However, economic development under communist rule is clouded somewhat by a spiraling crime rate, unemployment, corruption, and an increasing wealth gap. These social ills that have made many people look to the ancient wisdom of Confucius for solutions.
By Chung Dooeum
Chung Dooeum is a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University, in Seoul. ― Ed.