Shock therapy is a violent, economistic form of modernisation theory: the perceived backwardness of developing or planned economies is to be overcome by destroying the prevailing institutions and traditional practices to give way to the universal market based on private property as the only foundation of a modern political economy. China’s turn to reform in the late 1970s was a renewed attempt to make China modern in a series reaching back to the 19th century. This paper shows how China in the 1980s escaped the policy prescripts of shock therapy that would have subsumed China under an idealised interpretation of the Western market economy and undermined the institutional foundations of its reindustrialisation. China relied instead on a combination of traditional bureaucratic practices of market creation and regulation through state participation and Western research methods to become modern on its own terms while integrating into the global capitalist system. China’s way of becoming modern challenges us to reconsider what is modern beyond the Western experience and demands to reconsider the seeming dichotomy between the traditional and the modern.