30 years transform China, but not its politics

  • Business
  • Thursday, 18 Dec 2008

BEIJING (AP) - Thirty years ago this month, China's communist leaders launched an economic revolution, opening the door to free market reforms and foreign trade - though not to political change.

The new era began with a Communist Party gathering on Dec. 18, 1978, that endorsed small-scale private farming, the first step toward abandoning the late leader Mao Zedong's vision of communal agriculture and industry.

China's economy has since grown into the world's fourth-largest behind the U.S., Japan and Germany, and annual per capita income has soared to about 19,000 yuan ($2,760) last year, up from just 380 yuan in 1978.

The party marked the anniversary Thursday with a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing, opening with a speech from Hu Jintao, general secretary of the party and China's president.

"The reform and opening-up policy provided the theoretic foundation for the prosperity of China's economy,'' Hu said in the nationally televised program.

Along with private enterprise and capital markets have come greater prosperity and stability than ever before.

Virtually all Chinese families now have at least one television and, in the cities, a washing machine - rare items three decades ago.

Some 15 million families own private cars, and many Chinese also own their own homes.

"Nowadays, we worry instead about eating too well rather than not eating enough,'' says Guo Linchun, 78, retired music teacher in Beijing.

"Now, living standards have improved so much, we see not only televisions, so many people even own cars.''

But with modern industries come many other modern ills: pollution, industrial accidents and product safety scandals. And China's heavy reliance on exports and foreign investment ensures that the uncertainties now afflicting the global economy are haunting the Chinese as well.

As economic growth slows and factories close, job losses threaten to fuel political unrest.

Authorities have slashed interest rates and promised to spend more than half a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy.

The seeds of China's tremendous transformation were planted in 1978, when then-leader Deng Xiaoping declared, "We must learn to manage the economy by economic means'' - calling for pragmatism to trump communist ideology.

It was a crucial turning point between the 30 years of economic central planning that followed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, and the current era of catching up to the affluent, industrial West.

"To get rich is glorious,'' proclaimed Deng, a fiery revolutionary hero who was twice persecuted for being a "capitalist roader'' before he came to power in 1978.

Today, China's worship of progress and wealth is evident - in the bright neon billboards of Shanghai's waterfront Bund, in Beijing's teeming expressways and showcase Olympic stadiums, in the vast industrial parks and luxury villas crowding farmers out of city suburbs.

In the early 1980s, just a few years after the reforms were launched, Beijing's wide thoroughfares were empty and dark at night.

A stroll down Shanghai's Nanjing Road took a visitor past ill-lit tenements and tiny shops.

Traveling across town involved slow rides on lumbering buses, or long treks by bicycle; taxis were still unheard of.

Dining out after 6 p.m. meant going hungry - most restaurants were closing by then, their meager menus finished for the day.

Shanghai's bar streets now bustle until the wee hours; local noodle shops compete with McDonald's for the pre-dawn crowd.

China is now a lynchpin in international trade and a powerful player in world diplomacy. Its leaders take each major anniversary as an opportunity to spotlight the Communist Party's role in its success story.

Next year, the country marks another, darker anniversary, that of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests centered in Tiananmen Square, a military assault on unarmed demonstrators that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Despite dramatic economic changes, China's political system would remain petrified, with the Communist Party firmly in control.

"China has enjoyed remarkable economic growth and social progress, but it is least impressive in terms of political reform and cultural diversity,'' says Ding Xueliang, a former Communist Party official who teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Calls for greater freedoms persist.

Earlier this month more than 300 lawyers, writers, scholars and artists circulated a public appeal, called the "Charter 08,'' urging the party to loosen its 60-year monopoly on power and allow democratic reforms.

"Where is China headed in the 21st century?'' it asks. "This is a historic moment, and our future hangs in the balance.''

China's leaders still punish public dissent and perceived challenges to their power.

One Chinese writer who signed the charter remained missing more than a week after police took him away, and more than three dozen others have reported harassment, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Though China has the world's largest population of Internet users, more than 250 million, it still seeks to control what its citizens see and hear.

Despite China's abundance of food and material wealth, it is a developing country.

According to the World Bank's most recent estimates, more than 100 million of the 1.3 billion Chinese still live on less than $1 a day.

That's way down from 800 million three decades ago, but hundreds of millions more get by on just $1 to $2 a day.

For the rural poor, the only escape from poverty is to flee farms for the cities, where many get by working in factories or construction sites, driving taxis and trucks, or gathering trash for recycling.Taking the most dangerous, unpleasant jobs, China's migrant workers may be the biggest victims of the country's pell-mell industrialization.

But all suffer from skies choking with auto exhaust and smog from coal-fired power plants; rivers bubbling with untreated sewage and villages festooned with plastic bags and other litter.

Simmering protests over pollution and industrial accidents have prompted authorities to pledge better enforcement of environmental, labor and safety standards.

Though its problems with product quality are nothing new - exploding beer bottles and television sets once were the main headline grabbers - thanks to its newfound role as the world's factory floor, China now answers to global consumers outraged by unsafe food, drugs and other products.

China's own economy remains a hodgepodge of freewheeling private enterprise and state-dominated big industries.

It is only gradually easing controls on foreign investment in shares.

It keeps its currency trading in a narrow band, and re-imposed price controls on food and other key commodities when inflation surged earlier this year.

But whatever the risks and frictions from globalization, even with the world financial system in chaos, Beijing remains committed to the reforms that have taken it so far from its communist revolutionary roots.

"The financial crisis in the West has definitely discouraged many in China from moving quickly on financial reforms,'' says Ding.

"The political and business leadership will look at things more prudently and more carefully, but I wouldn't say they'd turn back.''

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