To Revive China: The make-or-break move that decides China's destiny
Updated 11:31, 11-Nov-2021
Zhao Yue

Editor's note: This is a four-episode series that dives into the four periods that were turning points in China's modern history: the New Democratic Revolution from 1919 to 1949; the Socialist Revolution in the 1950s; Reform and Opening-Up since 1978 and the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics post 2012. The third episode focuses on Reform and Opening-Up, which led to China's rise as an economic powerhouse. You may find the first, second, and fourth episode here.

A radio, a bicycle, a sewing machine and a watch may seem like ordinary objects, but back in the 1960s and 70s, they were the four most desired items in every Chinese household. But in a matter of 10 years, they gradually fell out of people's favor. That is because the "four big items" had an entirely new meaning by the end of the 1980s: a TV, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a recorder – rarely seen appliances that were considered luxuries before China's reform and opening-up.

A woman and a child selecting a Swallow brand sewing machine produced in Beijing, 1964. /Public Domain

A woman and a child selecting a Swallow brand sewing machine produced in Beijing, 1964. /Public Domain

In 1978, China's gross national income (GNI) reached $187.7 billion, more than quadrupling the $45.8 billion in 1962. A comprehensive industrial system had also been developed during the socialist transformation period in the 1950s. But although significant progress had been made, the economy stagnated in the 1970s. By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, many Chinese people were still impoverished, and technology was very much behind the developed countries in the world.

Deng Xiaoping, an elder of the Communist Party of China (CPC) who had played an important role in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the Chinese Civil War, wanted to bring China back on track.

In December 1978, the third plenary session of the 11th Central Committee of the CPC was held in Beijing, which marked the beginning of the reform and opening-up policy. The outcome of the meeting was that the CPC's primary focus shifted from the "class struggle," implementing the social and political changes popularized by Karl Marx, to economic construction and modernization. Deng also emerged as the de facto leader of China.

He called upon the Party's cadres to start learning, particularly in three subjects: economics, science and technology, and management. Deng considered studying these subjects well a must for carrying out socialist modernization rapidly and efficiently. 

"On the eve of nationwide victory in the Chinese revolution, Comrade Mao Zedong called on the whole Party to start learning afresh. We did that pretty well, and consequently, after entering the cities, we were able to rehabilitate the economy very quickly and then to accomplish the socialist transformation," Deng said in his speech, "Emancipating the Mind, Seeking Truth from Facts, Uniting as One and Looking to the Future."

"But we must admit that we have not learned well enough in the subsequent years. Expending our main efforts on political campaigns, we did not master the skills needed to build our country. Our socialist construction failed to progress satisfactorily, and we experienced grave setbacks politically," he continued. 

"Now that our task is to achieve modernization, our lack of the necessary knowledge is even more obvious. So, the whole Party must start learning again."

Deng Xiaoping at the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, December 1978. /People's Daily

Deng Xiaoping at the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, December 1978. /People's Daily

To speed up economic development, the Chinese government, led by Deng, carried out major reforms in the country's economic management system, opened up the country to foreign investment and pursued economic cooperation with other countries. Much of the state-owned industries were contracted out to be privatized. Entrepreneurs were also given permission to start businesses. 

Under the premise of maintaining a socialist system, the reform aimed to establish a socialist market economy. This policy made a breakthrough first in the rural countryside and was soon quickly followed throughout the country.

Deng changed the preconceived notion about the CPC and socialism that socialism is bound to have a planned economy. To him, "Black cat or white cat, if it can catch mice, it's a good cat." In other words, a socialist society can adapt the market economy just as a capitalist society can have a planned economy. 

"Planning and market forces are both means of controlling economic activity," Deng said.

The city of Shenzhen in south China's Guangdong Province is a paragon of the reform and opening-up policy. A poor coastal village before the reform, it was made the first special economic zone in China in 1979 and transformed into a metropolis in a span of just 20 years. It is now a global center of technology, international trade and finance, nicknamed "China's Silicon Valley." The Shenzhen Port has been the third-largest container port in the world for five consecutive years.

In the 1990s, China's economy skyrocketed. Its GDP in 1990 was $394.6 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund. By 1995, it had almost doubled to $734.5 billion. By 2000, China's GDP was $1.21 trillion, three times that of 1990. China's economic, scientific and technological strength and comprehensive national power have since joined the top ranks of the world.

Deng Xiaoping visiting a tech company in Shenzhen during his southern tour in 1992. /VCG

Deng Xiaoping visiting a tech company in Shenzhen during his southern tour in 1992. /VCG

"Reform and opening-up are the means by which we shall develop our economy in three stages," Deng said in 1988 in his speech, "We Should Draw On the Experience of Other Countries."

"The goal of the first stage is to ensure that the people have adequate food and clothing, and this has been accomplished ahead of time. The goal of the second stage is to enable the people to live a relatively comfortable life by the end of this century. There are still 12 years left, and it seems that we shall be able to reach that goal. And the goal of the third stage is to reach the level of moderately developed countries by the middle of the next century. That goal will be hard to achieve."

In 1997, Deng passed away in Beijing. The man who made modern China did not live to see it accomplish the second goal. By joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, hosting the Olympics in 2008 and then the World Expo in 2010, China has taken an increasingly larger role on the global stage in the new century. Now, it is on its way toward the third goal.

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