Beijing is a modern city. China is a modern country. That’s what I’ve been hearing over and over again since arriving here. One of my first Chinese lessons was all about modernization, and since then 现代化 (xiandaihua, or modernization) has come up in class time after time.
Having been in Beijing for well over a month now, I can say that it is, in many aspects, a modern city. The new subway train lines are clean and heavily computerized, complete with live subway maps and television adds on the walls of the tunnels. Yes, the tunnel walls are covered in screens that create advertisements as the train moves along. Just about every restaurant has Wi-Fi and just about every student owns a smart phone. Beijing locals seem to be quite proud of their modern city. A stranger on the subway even asked me about DC’s metro system and looked pleased to hear that the DC metro has yet to add the safety walls and doors separating the train tracks from the station platforms, a feature already present in Beijing’s new subway lines. Based on my exchanges with teachers, friends at Minzu University, and some strangers, it seems that Chinese people are quite interested in being members of a modern society. I can’t necessarily blame them; I often enjoy and sometimes take for granted the prestige that comes with being a citizen of the United States, the world’s political hegemon and a trendsetter in modern music, entertainment, and culture.
The desire to be considered modern is not new in China. Perhaps the most shocking example of this desire can be seen in the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, Chairman Mao put into motion a new revolution to rid China of the capitalist and bourgeois influence that allegedly seeped from traditional Chinese culture into the Communist society. The result was 10 years of rapid and frantic modernization. Ancient artifacts were destroyed. Thousands of books and scrolls were burned. Urban youth, professors, doctors, and high-ranking party leaders alike were sentenced to years of exile in rural villages to be “reeducated,” as their high level of education was unacceptably posh. Members of the Red Guard even bothered to exhume the ancient remains of emperors just to burn and disgrace them; that was considered an effective method to prevent traditional culture from undermining Maoist ideals.
Needless to say that the revolution didn’t work out as well as imagined. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself has since branded this desperate attempt to modernize China as the greatest national setback in the history of the People’s Republic. Yet the CCP has held on to many of the policies and ideas that brought about such hardship. Here in Beijing, as in the rest of China, online bloggers and writers are forbidden from using words as common as “freedom” in contexts not sanctioned by the CCP. Various religious groups, especially Christians, Jews, and other minorities, often meet in illegal 地下教会(dixia jiaohui, or underground churches) to avoid the Party’s strict censorship. Movies critical of Maoist ideology, such as The Blue Kite, are prohibited in China because they suggest that the Cultural Revolution was not merely a stain on the otherwise perfect track record of the CCP, but rather a product of years of drastic policies put forth by Chairman Mao and the Communist leadership.
With my notion of the Western “modern” in mind, these examples certainly put China in a rather different light. Indeed, some could question whether a society that banishes the word “freedom” can be considered modern. But plenty of people, Chinese and foreign, still consider China to be a modernizing country. Perhaps this is because the definition of “modern” is not always clear. In the material sense, China is quickly achieving the same “modern” standard of living often associated with Western countries. However, in the cultural or ideological sense, the Western “modern” and the Chinese “modern” are not necessarily the same. While they may share similarities, their differences are significant. For example, from what I have observed, one “modern” emphasizes the power and freedom of the individual to achieve a greater goal in society, whereas the other emphasizes the power of the collective Chinese nation to achieve that greater goal. Furthermore, as seen in the Cultural Revolution, ideas with ties to traditional Chinese culture, capitalist economic systems, religions, or just about anything else chastised by the CCP are silenced; the government is not always subtle in its attempts to stifle unapproved speech and ideas.
On the surface, China seems modern in the Western sense, and in many ways that is true, but the remaining underlying differences are also leaving China with a type of modern more reminiscent of that sought by the Cultural Revolution. Whether or not this will continue in the future is difficult to say, especially given today’s ease of access to information.
In a sense, my Chinese lesson is correct. China is a modern country, but what that means exactly may not be entirely clear as it changes under the lenses of different biases and cultural backgrounds.