The Four Modernizations were goals first set forth by Zhou Enlai in 1963, and enacted by Deng Xiaoping, starting in 1978, to strengthen the fields of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology in China. The Four Modernizations were adopted as a means of rejuvenating China's economy in 1978 following the death of Mao Zedong, and were among the defining features of Deng Xiaoping's tenure as head of the party.
They were introduced as early as January 1963: at the Conference on Scientific and Technological Work held in Shanghai that month, Zhou Enlai called for professionals in the sciences to realize "the Four Modernizations." In February 1963, at the National Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology Work, Nie Rongzhen specifically referred to the Four Modernizations as comprising agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. In 1975, in one of his last public acts, Zhou Enlai made another pitch for the Four Modernizations at the 4th National People's Congress. After Zhou's death and Mao’s soon thereafter, Deng Xiaoping assumed control of the party in late 1978. In December 1978 at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, Deng Xiaoping announced the official launch of the Four Modernizations, formally marking the beginning of the reform era.
The science and technology modernization although understood by Chinese leaders as being key to the transformation of industry and the economy, proved to be more of a theoretical goal versus an achievable objective. This was primarily due to decades-long isolation of Chinese scientists from the western international community, outmoded universities, and an overall lack of access to advanced scientific equipment, information technology, and management knowhow. Recognizing the need for technical assistance to spur this most important modernization, the Chinese Government elicited the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the fall of 1978 to scope out and provide financial resources for the implementation of an initial complement of targeted projects. The initial projects from 1979–1984 included the establishment of overseas on-the-job training and academic programs, set-up of information processing centers at key government units, and the development of methods to make informed decisions within the Chinese context based on market principles. The key advisor to the Chinese Government on behalf of the UNDP was Jack Fensterstock of the United States. This first technical assistance effort (CPR/79-001) by the UNDP led to the entry of large-scale multilateral funding agencies including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
The Four Modernizations were designed to make China a great economic power by the early 21st century. These reforms essentially stressed economic self-reliance. The People's Republic of China decided to accelerate the modernization process by stepping up the volume of foreign trade by opening up its markets, especially the purchase of machinery from Japan and the West. By participating in such export-led growth, China was able to speed up its economic development through foreign investment, a more open market, access to advanced technologies, and management experience.
On December 5, 1978 in Beijing, former red guard Wei Jingsheng posted on the Democracy Wall the Fifth Modernization as being "democracy". He was arrested a few months later and jailed for 15 years.
- Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. "Four Modernizations Era". A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization. University of Washington. Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. Retrieved October 20, 2011.
- 人民日报 (31 January 1963). 在上海举行的科学技术工作会议上周恩来阐述科学技术现代化的重大意义 [Science and Technology in Shanghai at the conference on Zhou Enlai explained the significance of modern science and technology]. People's Daily (in Chinese). Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. p. 1. Archived from the original on 2011-10-20.
- 人民日报 (22 February 1963). 阐明农业科学技术工作任务 [Clarify the tasks of agricultural science and technology]. People's Daily (in Chinese). Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. p. 1. Archived from the original on 2011-10-20.
- Brook, Daniel (2005). Modern revolution: social change and cultural continuity in Czechoslovakia and China. University Press of America. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-7618-3193-8.