[Viewpoint]How China succeeded in its reform

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[Viewpoint]How China succeeded in its reform

About 30 years ago, the third plenary session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China took place for five days at Beijing’s Jiangxi Hotel from Dec. 18, 1978. The meeting was the prelude to China’s reform. Deng Xiaoping, who was reinstated for the third time in 1977 as party leader and the architect of China’s reform, was also at the meeting.

Since then, China’s contemporary history has been a struggle to balance the dilemma that without reform, the country will perish, and with reform will come the country’s demise.

For the past three decades, the global economy has grown at an average annual rate of 3 percent. China, in contrast, has seen average growth of 9.8 percent. Its trade volume in 1978 was $20.6 billion - this has multiplied by a factor of 100 to $2.2 trillion over the 30 years. Its foreign currency reserve leapt from $167 million to $2 trillion.

What the country’s 1.3 billion people have achieved by plunging into globalization is phenomenal. There are several “China model” theories purporting to explain the situation.

What had led the China of today were internal reform and opening up the country to the outside world. The reform began with removing the restraint on productive power by ending the commune practice and introducing a household responsibility system in the rural villages.

The wave of reform soon reached the cities and broke down the labor, production and life community of the urban unit system.

The labor market became flexible and a large number of state-owned companies were privatized. Farmers were given rights to use land and to trade the rights. And these changes largely reshaped the people’s thinking.

Deng Xiaoping said it would be impossible to build the country with closed doors. Attracting foreign investment was indeed unavoidable. Notably, China actually attracted direct foreign investment, including money from overseas Chinese, rather than depending on loans from other countries.

To make this happen, China formed diplomatic relations with the United States and created a special economic zone. The special district was linked to the coastal line and then expanded inward.

Joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 was a historic event that put China on the world economic radar.

Pushing forward such reform measures was possible because there was nationwide consensus behind the action plans. The country had put aside the ideological debate and concentrated on a single focus: building the economy.

Deng Xiaoping appealed to the public to stop fighting each other for the sake of economic development, and it worked. The staunch socialist ideals were softened during the course of the reform and open-door policy.

In China, the standards of socialism were not equality and public interest. The goal was developing productive power, increasing the country’s power and improving lives.

Many discussions took place within the party to explore the reform and the open-door policy. The grand debate, focused on the theme “Practice is the only criterion to judge the truth of socialism,” was the starting point for the policy from May 1978 to 1979. During the process, the political wisdom of respecting principles while harmonizing history and reality shined.

Reformists had an accurate understanding of the spirit of the time, so they did not judge history with the sword of power when it was time to bid farewell to the era of Mao Zedong. They knew how to embrace successes and failures at the same time.

China’s history of reform, therefore, has not caused conflict between the conservatives and the reformists. Instead, they found common ground in discussing the speed and spectrum of the reform.

The unhindered reform of the past 30 years, however, also cast a dark shadow over the country. Unbalanced development widened the gap in the society, and the number of the working poor grew. Unemployment became a serious issue and corruption spread. Such problems were insolvable with an appeal to socialism or patriotism.

Today, China is looking for a new path. Hu Jintao’s view on scientific development presents the direction. The development must be more democratic, environmentally friendly and sustainable. Most of all, it must have its roots in the everyday lives of the people.

Many unforeseen obstacles, such as the global financial crisis, will appear along the way. “There was no road to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made,” Lu Xun, a writer and intellectual, once said.

China’s 30-year reform has been like that, and will continue in the same way. The international community needs to cooperate so that China’s widespread reforms can succeed, because China’s success and failure are no longer the matter of the country, but of the world.



*The writer is a professor of international relations at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hee-ok

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