40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up

Transforming China: 40 years of reform and opening up

Visitors unfold the flag of the Chinese Communist Party outside an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up at the National Museum of China in Beijing, China, on Nov 14, 2018.
Visitors unfold the flag of the Chinese Communist Party outside an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up at the National Museum of China in Beijing, China, on Nov 14, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - The biggest story at the turn of the century must be the transformation of China into the world's second-largest economy.

Three decades of relative isolation, including 10 chaotic years during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, had left the country backward and impoverished.

However, in the 40 years since China, under patriarch Deng Xiaoping, first embarked on reform and opened up to the outside world in 1978, it has lifted more than 800 million Chinese out of poverty.

The Chinese people's lives have improved not only materially. They have also gained more civil rights and freedoms. The loosening of the "hukou" or residential permit system has meant that they are able to move freely in the country and go where the jobs are. But reform of the system is not complete so migrant workers in the cities cannot enjoy the social benefits that permanent city residents do. The people's increased social space includes some leeway to practise religion.

But development has not come without costs.

The harsh one-child policy started in 1980 to slow down population growth and speed up economic development has caused undue pain to couples who want more than one child.

It has also led to a distortion in the gender ratio, a rapidly ageing society and a shrinking workforce that could threaten economic growth and social stability. The government has relaxed the policy, with families now allowed to have two children.

Four decades of unfettered growth has damaged the land, with air, water and soil pollution so severe in some areas that the incidence of diseases like cancer and premature deaths is high.

Uneven development of the different regions has also meant higher inequality and pockets of extreme poverty.

 

After 40 years of reform and opening up, there is also a sense that the government is tightening up control again - not only of the economy but also of the social sphere.

There is a certain amount of uncertainty over which way China will go in the decades to come, whether it will continue to liberalise its economy and society or otherwise.

But what is clear is that the past 40 years have been nothing short of a miracle for the Chinese people in terms of the economic and social transformation that has brought wealth and freedoms to them.

In the stories that follow, The Straits Times' correspondents in China highlight some of the key policy changes and the transformations these have brought.

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