China’s Cultural Traditions and Chinese-Style Modernization

April 18, 2023

About the author:

Li Chaomin, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute, Professor, Institute of U.S. Fiscal Studies, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics


“Chinese-style” is the essencial thinking of the Chinese-style Modernization. On the 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress last October, Xi Jinping proposed the future goal of “Chinese-style modernization,” a concept with deep social policy implications. In his Report on the Work of the Government, delivered at the opening meeting of the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang reviewed and envisioned the government’s work in all respects, including employment, pandemic prevention and control, rural revitalization, housing, education, health care, and social security. He also proposed for work in the areas of finance, taxation, social security, and environmental protection, charting the course for China’s social progress and Chinese-style modernization.


Ontology in contemporary philosophy addresses questions like which of the entities exist at the most fundamental level and how entities are grouped into hierarchical categories, such as the zoological and botanical taxonomy, classifying creatures from family and genus to species level. The same is true for the structure of any society, which consists in a hierarchy from the core (economic interests) to the outer layer (social and cultural traditions). The way of life is a national tradition and encompasses the most prevalent social and cultural phenomena of a nation. Different ethnic groups have different lifestyles and fundamentally different production and consumption patterns for survival. Therefore, academically, a country must adopt a multifaceted and comprehensive approach to social governance.


As a development goal, “modernization” has been a necessary step in the evolution of contemporary Chinese civilization. The concept of “modernization,” which essentially means “developing towards a modern society,” was proposed to contrast the then latest stages of capitalist development with those preceding the discovery of the New World and the Reformation. According to the Western “scientific disciplines,” it can be broken down into “modernization” in areas such as politics, economy, military, society, culture, science and technology, and more. Modernization is not just an integral part of the evolution of an ethnic group, country, or society, but also an inherent responsibility and duty of those in power. To achieve modernization, a full range of measures must be taken for development in those above-mentioned areas. Premier Li Keqiang pointed out that efforts must be made to promote Chinese-style modernization, pursue coordinated development, keep improving people’s lives, and maintain social stability to lay a good foundation for building China into a modern socialist country in an all-around way. But for the time being, he stressed, comprehensive measures must be taken to ensure “lasting peace and stability,” which should be a long-term goal if the Chinese-style modernization is to be achieved.


First of all, it is a must to comprehensively promote the historical and cultural traditions of the Chinese nation and boost the spirit of the Chinese people. China has a long history of civilization. As early as in the Western Zhou period, united and well-organized societies had been built in China, where laws and moral codes were developed by the governments for social governance. Administrative officials of prefectures and counties performed their duties taking into account all three aspects, namely “heavenly principles,” “national laws,” and “public sentiment.” In addition, the Chinese people today are fully aware of and adhere to the ethical and moral codes formed over the course of thousands of years of the Chinese civilization. For example, having a large number of descendants was one of the things that would make a family proud when it came to family management. Government officials emphasized “even wealth distribution” because “inequality” rather than “scarcity” is the cause of trouble. To enlighten the people, officials often urged them to get rich through hard work in production and win honors for their clans, saying, “Only when people are well-fed and clothed will they know honor and shame.” In addition, the ideal society for the ancient Chinese was to advance from “moderate prosperity” to “a world of great harmony.” For example, in The Peach Blossom Spring, Tao Yuanming (c.365 AD-427 AD), one of the best-known poets in China, wrote about what he saw before his eyes “a wide expanse of flat land with neatly arranged farmhouses, fertile fields, beautiful ponds, mulberry trees, and bamboo groves. Roads crisscrossed the land where the sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs could be heard all around. Men and women were busy tilling the farmland and they dressed differently from the people outside of the Peach Blossom Spring. Both the elderly and the children appeared very happy and contented.” Another example, the quotation “all men within the four seas under heaven are brothers” from the Analects of Confucius - Zilu expressed the core values of the Chinese people regarding interpersonal relationships, that is, “do not do onto others what you do not want others to do onto you.” These values have never been abandoned by China or its people despite all the tribulations. They constitute our way of life and belief with permanent relevance, just as philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, “… something of the ethical qualities in which China is supreme, and which the modern world most desperately needs.”


Second, it is a must to stabilize China’s population growth and take it as a strategy for long-term development. Western economics originated in modern times, with the aim of maximizing economic efficiency, as illustrated in The Wealth of Nations with an example of the division of labor in a British pin factory. Later, the Cobb-Douglas production function in western economic theory further explained the progress of a country and society based on a “production function” with two major factors, “labor” and “technology.” It is an approach simply pivoting on GDP growth, which in fact pits “population” against “technology.” Thus, the notion of “zero population growth” once circulating in the West had great limitations as it was a product of an era that featured a “shortage economy” and a lack of technological advancement. These restrictions are no longer an issue thanks to modern advances in science, technology, and social productivity. We can say for sure that the Chinese-style modernization would make no sense without a certain size of population. In fact, the Chinese-style modernization is the modernization of a huge population. A huge population affords us a more solid foundation for development, a greater ability to serve the rest of the world, and a higher potential for consumption. Therefore, the “two-child” and “three-child” policies promoted by the central government are strategic decisions aimed at building the population foundation necessary for the Chinese-style modernization.


Third, we must promote common prosperity for all people. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, our accomplishments in social development have won praise worldwide, especially because we have avoided falling into the “middle-income trap” characterized by a significant gap between the rich and the poor, which exists for some other countries. However, as one of the main characteristics of the primary stage of socialism, the new China that emerged from the past had to strike a balance between “individual prosperity” and “common prosperity” and implement different distribution policies at different development stages of productivity. With the advancement of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the New Era, common prosperity has inevitably become one of the goals of the Chinese-style modernization. It conforms to the basic law of development of the Chinese civilization and is the “original aspiration” of the CPC, that is, to strive for the affluent of the Chinese people and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.


Fourth, we must promote coordinated material and cultural-ethical advancement. Both material advancement and cultural-ethical advancement have their fundamental tenets as contemporary concepts. Unlike material advancement, which is easy to define, cultural-ethical advancement refers to higher values of humanity in both the East and the West, such as “communism” and “great harmony.” In The Commentary of Zuo - Twenty-Fourth Year of Duke Xiang’s Reign, it goes like this: “The highest is the establishment of one’s virtue; next is the establishment of meritorious deeds; and next to that is the establishment of words. Long-lasting and enduring, these are what were called immortality.” This is what we commonly refer to as the “three immortalities,” which have for a very long time motivated the Chinese nation to seek the establishment of virtue, meritorious deeds, and words. Contemporary role models, such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Peng Dehuai, Huang Jiguang, and Qian Xuesen, are the embodiment of the “three immortalities.” It is foreseeable that as the Chinese people become “well-fed and clothed,” this outlook on honor and disgrace, which reflects the level of cultural-ethical advancement of the Chinese people, will prevail and will keep persisting as a moral guide for behavior and the core values of society. It will continue to advance alongside “material advancement.”


Fifth, we must promote harmonious coexistence between man and nature. The concept of harmonious coexistence between man and nature has early roots in the environmental ideological tradition of the Chinese nation, which supports the government’s role in the policy-making of environment protection. According to Yi Zhou Shu - Dajujie, an unofficial history of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), it is prohibited to cut down trees in mountains in spring so that vegetation can grow, and it is prohibited to fish in rivers and lakes in summer so that fish and turtles can grow. The Rites of Zhou – Diguan: Situ recorded the social management systems of the Western Zhou government. Official positions such as Shanyu (mountain official), Linheng (forest official), Chuanheng (river official), and Zeyu (lake official) were set up to protect the environment and natural resources and collect taxes. In modern times, the frequently occurring “El Nino Phenomenon” is a result of the overexploitation of natural resources since the Industrial Revolution, and has attracted the attention of visionary people. The harmonious coexistence between man and nature has been made possible by modernization due to productivity advancement. However, to coexist harmoniously with Mother Nature is neither a privilege of some countries nor an excuse for containing developing countries. China should make the Chinese-style modernization one of its major goals for social progress and, through social transformation and new fiscal and tax policies, promote the development of new energy, new materials, new economic models, and new consumption patterns.


All in all, we must align fiscal, taxation, and social policies to balance current policies of expanding domestic demand with the long-term goal of the Chinese-style modernization. First, annual budget should be made to promote economic growth as well as social progress. We should appropriately boost funding for social policies in the budget. To address the issue of low fertility rate under the conditions of a market economy, efforts should be made to ensure stable employment and income for the large number of married and childbearing women working in enterprises. In addition to administrative regulations, other measures such as subsidies, tax breaks, and reductions in social security contributions can be taken to ensure enterprises’ wish in political efforts to increase the birth rate. In particular, we should encourage local governments’ initiatives (especially their support for labor-intensive enterprises), in their efforts through the division of fiscal powers between the central, local and city levels, to ensure that enterprises will not suffer economic loss from women’s marriage and childbirth leaves, which has been a cause of reluctance to create jobs on the part of the enterprises. These efforts will also contribute to common prosperity. Second, we should study how to address the huge gap between the rich and the poor in certain fields and among different groups of people through direct tax reform. We should also introduce policies on capital gains tax to prevent the “profiteering” of some special industries during special periods. Third, to protect Chinese cultural traditions and way of life, we must push forward the progress in converting economic strength into national defense strength. China has made economic and social advancements over the past 40 years on the basis of its national defense capabilities. High-quality economic and social development is impossible without sufficient national defense investment. Some world powers have long been well ahead of China in military spending in terms of size and efficiency as competition between big nations has intensified. We must be fully aware of it and move quickly to implement political consistency on defense spending.









Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the March issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the October issue, please click here:




Should you have any questions, please contact us at