Nothing illustrates China's throes in becoming modern more vividly than the dramatic events of the past two months. First, Chinese people, within China and overseas, reacted with rage and vitriol to perceived foreign attempts to humiliate the nation in the Olympic torch relay. Then, in the wake of the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake, tales of monumental human suffering and heroism were punctuated with telltale signs of western influences. A little boy at the quake epicentre was seen on TV wearing an 'I love New York' T-shirt. The first words of a little girl rescued from the rubble were: 'I want to drink Coke.' To cap it all, an admirer reportedly established a fan site for 'grandpa' Premier Wen Jiabao on Facebook. Ancient and scarred as she is, make no mistake: China is becoming modern, even in land-locked, grief-stricken Sichuan.
But it would belittle the notion of modernity to equate it with drinking Coke and the like. It is tempting to equate becoming modern with becoming democratic, but this is only one of modernity's many dimensions. It is worth teasing out the various definitions that scholars have attempted, and asking ourselves whether, and in what ways, China is becoming modern.
Economic modernisation may be the most obvious phenomenon in the gleaming mega-cities of China, if one adopts political scientist Robert Ward's definition. He explains it as including 'intense application of scientific technology and inanimate sources of energy, high specialisation of labour and interdependence of impersonal markets, large-scale financing and concentration of economic decision-making and rising levels of material well-being'. On political modernisation, if one goes by Samuel Huntington's touchstone of three processes, China as a political entity is becoming modern: it has long had a single, national, secular political authority. New political functions - legal, military, administrative and scientific - managed by new administrative hierarchies, chosen by merit rather than ascription, have emerged. The rule of law needs to be strengthened, and appears to be in the process of being so. But, with the nation's age-old obsession with survival, stability, unity, social harmony and oneness of purpose, it will be a while before China meets Huntington's third test of accommodating increased participation in politics by social groups throughout society, along with the development of new institutions such as political parties and interest groups to organise this participation.
Other sociologists have pointed out that becoming modern is not just about ways of organising and doing things, but also about ways of thinking and feeling. It involves new ways of perceiving, expressing and valuing. In their seminal study on modernisation, sociologists Alex Inkeles and David H. Smith identified 12 personal qualities that define the modern man, including: openness to new experience; readiness for social transformation; growth of opinion on a large number of issues; the valuing of technical skills; and awareness of, and respect for, the dignity of others. While it is tempting to see modernity as a form of civilisation characteristic of our current epoch, it is also true that, even in the modern age, not every person is modern in his or her mindset - just as feudalism was not present everywhere during the feudal period. Even in modern societies, not every person is truly modern, if the qualities proposed by experts are applied as the litmus test.
If a person spurns cross-cultural interaction because someone speaks a strange tongue, has a strange name or looks different, that person is not truly modern. A truly modern person is a global citizen, ready to interact with the rest of the world, accept new experiences and social change, and is energetic in acquiring new information on which to base his opinion.
By that token, even in a modern city like Hong Kong, some are more modern than others. Applying the same yardsticks, you could decide for yourself to what extent the Chinese people are becoming modern. But, before we judge others, perhaps we could ask ourselves first: are we truly modern?
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute