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Society & Culture

40 Years of Reform and Opening Up

Dec 21, 2018
  • Ding Yifan

    China Forum Expert and Deputy Director of China Development Research Center

On December 18th, President Xi Jinping summarized China's experience at the celebration of the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up. From his speech, we can see how Chinese leaders evaluate China's path what direction the country is headed.

"Reform and opening up is a great awakening of our party. It is this great awakening that gave birth to the great creation of our party from theory to practice. Reform and opening up is a great revolution in the history of the development of the Chinese nation" said Xi. He put the reform and opening up together with the establishment of the Communist Party of China and the creation of the People's Republic of China as the three major milestones in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation since the May 4th Movement in 1919.

Xi Jinping believes that the reason why reform and opening up has enabled China to achieve great development results resides in the following principles that China has followed.

1. Always persisting in emancipating people’s minds, seeking truth from facts, advancing with the times and being pragmatic. Until the reform and opening up, China had been exploring a path suitable for its own development. In the meantime, some dogmatic mistakes were made, such as the stipulation that socialist construction must adhere to certain characteristics, even if these characteristics had been proved to be unsuitable for China's development. Starting from the reform and opening up, China has slowly explored a set of experiences suitable for China's development in a spirit of bold trials, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”.

2. Always taking economic development as the priority. At the founding of the People's Republic, China took economic development as the priority. But later on, Chinese leaders then made a big mistake by concentrating on "class struggle", and lost some opportunities for development. Since the beginning of reform and opening up, China has seized the opportunity for development. As Chinese leaders discovered that enterprises in most developed countries wanted to reduce production costs and find other markets, they seized the opportunity to open up to foreign investment. And China has courageously participated in globalization, greatly speeding up the process of China's industrialization, and constantly adjusting China’s economic structure.

3. Sticking to the path of socialist political development with Chinese characteristics. Theorists in Western countries continue to describe China as "state capitalism" or communism, because they continue to deny socialism with Chinese characteristics. They believe that they have "won" the Cold War and human history will end with American-style capitalism as the highest stage of human social development. However, when “American-style democracy” fell into “vetocracy”, the government fell into paralysis and the country became extremely divided. When the American-style market economy fell into a financial crisis, the government became more and more “interventionist” and even wants to control international trade. Is it still a market economy? In contrast, Chinese socialist politics allow people to express their own demands, so that consultative democracy can fully play its role, and finally the so-called democratic centralism can take into account different opinions in the decision-making processes.

4. Always keeping in mind that development should safeguard and improve people's livelihood. After reform and opening up, Chinese leaders have made improving people's livelihood a top priority. The policy of development has always been aimed at improving people's living standards. In the 40 years of reform and opening up, China has succeeded in lifting 740 million people out of poverty, creating the world's largest middle class with more than 230 million people. The Chinese Engel coefficient has dropped from 60% in 1978 to 30%, while the Engel coefficient in developed countries is between 20% and 30%. China has built the world's largest social security system, including pensions, medical care, subsistence allowances, and housing. The basic pension insurance covers more than 900 million people, and medical insurance covers more than 1.3 billion people. Those are hard indicators of improvement of people's livelihood, and nobody can deny these achievements.

5. Always paying attention to protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. Starting from the 11th and 12th five-year plans, the Chinese government has always regarded “green development” as an important development indicator. China's industrialization has been synchronized with the conservation of natural resources and reduction of energy usage. The per unit energy consumption in the industrial and manufacturing sectors is declining, which proves that China has made tremendous progress in reducing energy intensity. At the same time, Chinese economy has made great progress in the development of renewable energies, and some Chinese technologies in the sector of renewable energy are leading the world. After Xi Jinping made the famous analogy that “Limpid waters and green mountains are also sources of wealth”, governments at all levels have made new efforts to protect the environment and restore nature. China's great achievements in reforestation, construction of artificial oases in the desert, returning farmland to forests, and returning farmland to wetlands, have been praised by international organizations like the United Nations, and have become a model for green development.

6. Always trying to strengthen and improve the Party’s leadership. The original intention of China's reform and opening up was to improve and strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party in China’s development. However, some people in the Western countries have intentionally or unconsciously neglected this effort. They even naively believed that reform and opening up would eventually lead to the collapse of the Communist Party, a dream that they have had since the Cold War. Therefore, when Chinese leaders reaffirmed that reform and opening up will serve to strengthen and improve the leadership of the Communist Party, Westerners panicked. Some politicians and political scientists said that China’s reform has “regressed” and China is “regressing.” We really don't know what the progress of China's reform is in their eyes, and what the regression of China's reform is. The Chinese Communist Party is leading Chinese people in constantly improving their quality of life, upgrading China’s industries, reinforcing the country's national strength, and improving its natural environment. If all these achievements are not progress, we don’t know what progress we should make.

We should acknowledge that the Sino-US confrontation has become the biggest variable affecting the world today. The way China celebrated the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up might not be so “encouraging” to some Americans. Xi Jinping clearly pointed out that "in China, a big country with more than 5,000 years of history and more than 1.3 billion people, there is no textbook that can be regarded as golden rules to promote reform and development, and there is no teacher who can lecture Chinese people about what to do." Therefore, “What should be reformed and how to reform must be based on whether it is in line with the overall goal of perfecting and developing the socialist system with Chinese characteristics and promoting the modernization of the national governance system and governance capacity. We will resolutely reform those that should and can be reformed; and we won’t change those that shouldn’t be reformed or cannot be reformed." Some Americans have been very enthusiastic about "giving advice" for China's reform and opening up, and hope that China will develop in the direction of their guidance. We welcome good advice, but no matter who will try to guide China’s development in the future, the Chinese will decide their own development direction.

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