Chinese economic reform

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The Lujiazui financial district of Pudong, Shanghai, the financial and commercial hub of modern China

The Chinese economic reform or reform and opening-up; known in the West as the Opening of China is the program of economic reforms termed "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" and "socialist market economy" in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Led by Deng Xiaoping, often credited as the "General Architect", the reforms were launched by reformists within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on December 18, 1978. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy. The success of China's economic policies and the manner of their implementation resulted in immense changes in Chinese society in the last 40 years, including greatly decreased poverty while both average incomes and income inequality have increased.


  • Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralise the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people. If western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction. If the Chinese are lucky, he will turn out to be an enlightened absolutist, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. If they are unlucky, he will be just another emperor who fondly dreamt of controlling a fifth of humanity.
  • It came shortly after Mao's death in September of that year, and by the end of 1978 Deng had outmaneuvered all of his rivals to become China's "paramount" leader. He had already by then turned the tables on his predecessor by claiming that Mao had been right seventy percent of the time and wrong thirty percent: this now became party doctrine. Among the "right" things Mao had done were reviving China as a great power, maintaining the Communist Party's political monopoly, and opening relations with the United States as a way of countering the Soviet Union. Among the "wrong" things was Mao's embrace of a disastrously administered command economy. With this pronouncement on percentages, Deng won himself room to pursue a very different path. It involved experimenting with markets at local and regional levels, after which Deng would declare whatever worked to be consistent with Marxist-Leninist principles. Through this bottom-up approach, he showed that a communist party could significantly, even radically, improve the lives of the people it ruled—but only by embracing capitalism. Per capita income tripled in China between 1978 and 1994. Gross domestic product quadrupled. Exports expanded by a factor of ten. And by the time of Deng's death in 1997, the Chinese economy had become one of the largest in the world. The contrast with the moribund Soviet economy, which despite high oil prices showed no growth at all in the 1970s and actually contracted during the early 1980s, was an indictment from which Soviet leaders never recovered. "After all," the recently deposed Mikhail Gorbachev commented ruefully in 1993, "China today is capable of feeding its people who number more than one billion."
  • But democracies also took root because they generally outperformed autocracies in raising living standards. Markets do not always require democracy in order to function: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China all developed successful economies under less than democratic conditions. The Cold War experience showed, though, that it is not easy to keep markets open and ideas constrained at the same time. And since markets proved more efficient than command economies in allocating resources and enhancing productivity, the resulting improvement in people s lives, in turn, strengthened democracies.
  • In 1978, after years of state control of all productive assets, the government of China embarked on a major program of economic reform. In an effort to awaken a dormant economic giant, it encouraged the formation of rural enterprises and private businesses, liberalized foreign trade and investment, relaxed state control over some prices, and invested in industrial production and the education of its workforce. By nearly all accounts, the strategy has worked spectacularly.
    While pre-1978 China had seen annual growth of 6 percent a year (with some painful ups and downs along the way), post-1978 China saw average real growth of more than 9 percent a year with fewer and less painful ups and downs. In several peak years, the economy grew more than 13 percent. Per capita income has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years, and a few analysts are even predicting that the Chinese economy will be larger than that of the United States in about 20 years. Such growth compares very favorably to that of the "Asian tigers"--Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan Province of China--which, as a group, had an average growth rate of 7-8 percent over the last 15 years.
    Curious about why China has done so well, an IMF research team recently examined the sources of that nation's growth and arrived at a surprising conclusion. Although capital accumulation--the growth in the country's stock of capital assets, such as new factories, manufacturing machinery, and communications systems--was important, as were the number of Chinese workers, a sharp, sustained increase in productivity (that is, increased worker efficiency) was the driving force behind the economic boom. During 1979-94 productivity gains accounted for more than 42 percent of China's growth and by the early 1990s had overtaken capital as the most significant source of that growth. This marks a departure from the traditional view of development in which capital investment takes the lead. This jump in productivity originated in the economic reforms begun in 1978.
  • On Dec. 13, 1978, at the close of a Communist Party gathering that lasted over a month, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping delivered a speech that laid out a pragmatic vision for China’s future. It was a country that was then not long out of the grip of the chaos and terror of the Cultural Revolution.
    He proposed that China learn from the example of other, richer countries, allow workers and peasants to “vie” to get ahead so those with a better standard of life would inspire others to work harder, and proposed that provinces and enterprises be given the power to make decisions or try new things.[...]
    In 1981, just three years after Deng’s reform project was launched, almost 90% of Chinese people lived in extreme poverty by the definition of the World Bank. By 2013, that number had dropped to less than 2%.
  • The opening up policy has enabled China to learn from other countries, either developed or developing. To strengthen its own capabilities, China has expanded research capacity, emphasized advanced management and increased infrastructure development. China has entered a new stage of development, with growth rate of domestic investment on infrastructure development decreasing and rapidly increasing foreign investment. China has also expanded its foreign direct investment through such international programs as the “Belt and Road Initiative” to promote economic cooperation, technological innovation, and resource sharing between regions and countries. On the basis of its own national conditions, China has taken a “small step, but fast run” rather than a “shock therapy” approach, with new policies or programs. This was first demonstrated on a small scale, and then incrementally spread to the whole country, to ensure success and reduce the trial-and-error cost as far as possible. China has increasingly realized the importance of achieving an “ecological civilization” by learning from the past and promoting an aggressive decoupling of the relationship between environmental pollution and associated loss of natural capital and economic growth, and chosen to make sustainable development a national strategy.
  • No country in human history ever grew so fast over such a long period of time. Average annual growth rates of 9.7 percent pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The policy of reform and openness also led to a fundamental departure from norms in Mao’s China, replacing collectivism and group conformity with individual performance and diversity. The unparalleled rise of China also fundamentally changed the international world order. The country began to wield its economic influence in search of raw materials with the confidence and intentions of a future global superpower. China’s growing economic power inevitably resulted in an increasingly assertive foreign and security policy.
    • Klaus Mühlhahn, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping (2019)
  • Ideas of ‘market socialism’ – for example, in the USSR in the 1920s, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in the 1970s – had never proposed a system with the capitalist sector outgrowing the parts of the economy owned by the state. Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping onwards asserted that they were developing a ‘communism with Chinese characteristics’. The red-dyed gauze no longer occluded reality. The communist order was retained only as a means of rigorous political and ideological control; its economic and social components were blown to the winds. Concepts of Mao Zedong Thought were abandoned except insofar as they promoted the goals of national identity, centralised administration and superpower status. An extraordinary hybrid was created. China had become the only communist state which developed a vibrant economy by giving it over to capitalism.
    • Robert Service, Comrades: A History of World Communism (2009)
  • In China, they started on limited economic reform first but it was beginning to succeed in producing more goods for the people—on a limited scale certainly, but it was beginning to succeed. You cannot get economic reform really going well and with a future unless you get political liberty. That was what they found. We have always known it. Here, I think it was perhaps the wiser way to start: to start with the political reform, the thorough discussion. After all, new ideas come out of discussion and free interplay of ideas and discussion between one and the other. The glasnost as it is called, has gone very far very quickly, far further, far faster than we thought and I think that plus the communication of the ideas will in the end lead to much greater prosperity. I think the point that I have to make again is that although the politicians at the top—led by Mr. Gorbachev—could bring about the glasnost, it requires the practical and willing cooperation of the people to enlarge their responsibility and their activity to bring success in economic reform. I believe that will come about. I believe that the changes—the glasnost—really have become permanent because they have gone so much further than anything we thought and they have given a so much better atmosphere and less tension—the fear seems to have gone—and so I believe that perestroika is now set upon its course and that it will go through to success.

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