Chinese modernization more than Shanghai’s impressive skyscrapers, dazzling nightscapes

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Strolling along the banks of the Suzhou River in Shanghai, I felt the city’s pulse. It had been over a decade since my last visit here.

The recently popular TV drama
Blossoms Shanghai has reminded the Chinese people of the era during which China rose rapidly, depicting how ordinary Chinese people made their fortunes and rapidly propelled this city into the forefront of global metropolises within a few decades.

New apartment buildings have risen along the riverbank, and old ones have been refurbished. Residents play by the river with their children. The river flows quietly, no longer emitting the sour stench it did over 20 years ago.

The lifestyle that Shanghainese enjoy today is undoubtedly what many Chinese have long aspired to achieve. For anyone seeking a more authentic understanding of China, trying to grasp why China has chosen its unique path of modernization, Shanghai serves as a crucial window.

However, there is more to China than just Shanghai. Also, it cannot be compared to global cities like New York or London. This tendency to compare today’s Shanghai with metropolitans in developed capitalist countries often inadvertently becomes a reference point for the West and the world in observing China.

My thoughts drift to the remote southwestern frontier of Ximeng in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, an obscure border county now revitalized with aid from Shanghai. Last spring, I visited the small county and saw many villages transformed with new housing funded by the Shanghai government and businesses. Villagers began earning stable incomes by processing local specialties and growing coffee and other crops, improving their living conditions.

When foreigners think of China, Shanghai’s prosperity often comes to mind. Few think of places like Ximeng, and even fewer know about the connection between Shanghai and Ximeng. In fact, such connections form an indispensable part of the most authentic face of China. They witness China’s leap from poverty to poverty alleviation and reflect the unevenness of China’s development. More importantly, they illustrate how building common prosperity has become the soul of the nation and society.

Chinese modernization is not only about impressive skyscrapers and dazzling nightscapes in cities like Shanghai. It’s also about raising the living standards of every corner and every ordinary person, no matter how remote their location. Reducing living standards disparities between regions as well as urban and rural areas is one of the key tasks of achieving common prosperity.

Imagine if children in Ximeng could enjoy the same educational resources as those in Shanghai, if their parents had the same healthcare when sick and if they too had stable pensions after retirement. 

To achieve all of this, China needs supportive policies, resource allocation, infrastructure development, balanced growth in education and healthcare, and a comprehensive and fair national social security system. Numerous examples show that ensuring a basic life that upholds human dignity motivates more people to create wealth.

As a leader, Shanghai needs stable development to provide resources for fairer national distribution. Building on this foundation of national stability, it can also ensure basic welfare and employment arrangements for relatively poor regions, allowing every resident to truly enjoy the benefits of economic development. 

Contemporary Western views of China still exhibit significant misalignments. These views are based on a basic understanding of China’s progress, particularly in achieving goals and the crucial role of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government.

China does not aspire to become a “superpower” like the US. Just like Chinese martial arts focusing on “internal strength,” by enhancing its “internal skills,” China will ultimately become a major country where 1.4 billion citizens enjoy a fairer, more stable and more prosperous life, serving as a stable anchor for global peace and development.

The author is a senior editor with People’s Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. [email protected]. Follow him on X @dinggangchina