EACH country has certain moments in its history that put it onto a new trajectory of development and changes the way it was forever. It is not an easy task to initiate, maintain, sustain, or construct such radical changes.
For China, these changes represent one of the most striking examples of modernization in the last 40 years. I call it striking, because we have never before witnessed a socio-economic transformation on this scale in terms of population and area. Another factor that makes China’s reform striking is the fact that this reform has penetrated all levels of society and spread across the entire scope of economic and political life.
Witness to Changes
Those who have lived in China for any period of time would say that the country has changed a lot while they have been there, and count themselves lucky to have seen the changes firsthand.
People queue up with ration coupons to obtain daily necessities in the 1980s.
A foreign friend of mine first moved to China in the early 1980s told me that he needed a ration card to buy bread and eggs; and he says he had to wait a year to buy a bicycle. Now in China you can see shared bicycles all around the city. A journalist friend from Turkey who lived in China in the mid-90s tells that he had to visit big hotel lobbies to connect to the Internet and make phone calls. In the same country today, 802 million people are connected to the Internet, and mobile payments are an essential part of everyday life. Another foreign friend who lives in Beijing says that the 2008 Olympic Games were a complete breakthrough for the country and many things changed in the city after the games. So he suggests a pre-and post-Olympic separation for the capital. Many people at the time wondered whether China could stage such a major event as the Olympics, yet today the country is successfully hosting many international events annually. When I first came to China in 2011, I had to travel 11 kilometers to Fuxingmen for a cup of coffee, because the closest café to my home was in Fuxingmen. The international coffee chain, which I first frequented daily back then now opens a new outlet every 15 hours in China and the country has become their second largest market in the world.
If a foreigner who lived in China in any period of recent history says, “China has changed a lot in my time,” you can believe them. In China, both the macro economic, social situation, and daily life change incessantly. However, in order to understand this change, it is necessary to look at the whole picture, not just the individual events. That big picture is called reform and opening-up.
Forty: Age of Maturity
Confucius says: There is no confusion at the age of 40. In the 40th year of China’s reform and opening-up, we can say that social and economic transformation has matured and that China has gained certain advantages in this process.
On October 22, 2018, local children dressed in their traditional apparels welcome the Chinese Navy hospital ship, which pays its first visit to St. John’s, capital of Antigua and Barbuda.
Forty years later, China has the world’s second largest GDP (US $12 trillion in 2017) and the third-highest foreign direct investment (US $158 billion in 2017). China’s share in the world economy increased from 1.8 percent in 1978 to 15 percent in 2017, while more than 700 million Chinese people were saved from poverty over the past 40 years. With the beginning of the 21st century, China has become the country that contributed the most to the global GDP growth. China’s imports and exports totalled US $4.1 trillion in 2017. Between 1949 and 1978, only 200,000 Chinese were able to travel abroad, and now Chinese people make more than 100 million overseas trips a year. China’s contribution to global peace and stability has reached significant levels over the past 40 years; China is the second largest contributor to UN peacekeeping funds, and 2,500 Chinese peacekeepers are working in UN operations.
However, it is obvious that the maturity of 40 years was not an easy task; when China entered the path of reform in 1978, the political and cultural shocks of the previous decade had not yet been fully overcome. In this period, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held on December 18-22, 1978, has a critical place in the history of the CPC and China. The agenda of the meeting focused on China urgently being brought onto the path of socialist modernization. The reformist cadres of the period proposed some modernization measures to society and a reform of the country’s centralized planned economy was deemed a necessity. The reform and opening-up policy was expounded at this meeting.
During the session, a revival of Chinese society was proposed. Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s reform and opening-up, emphasized that minds should be liberated in his speech. He stated that bold measures would be implemented step by step in four areas; the state, local governments, businesses, and individuals would be given full initiative and the centralized structure of the economy would be changed. While economic modernization was promoted, the ideological ground was not neglected. The “basic contradiction” of Chinese society was redefined. According to Deng, the main contradiction of the new era was that the productive forces were at a very low level of development, which could not meet the needs of the country. In order to overcome this contradiction, the universal truth of Marxism should be integrated with the concrete realities of China and a Chinese socialism should be built.
China’s economic liberalization has also changed its foreign policies, and China has established diplomatic relations with dozens of new countries. At that time, the agreements with Japan and the United States were the most concrete examples of this change. By reforming and opening up, the main motivation of foreign policy was to achieve the prime economic goals, and ideological concerns were no longer seen as a priority.
The Horgos International Border Cooperation Center on the China-Kazakhstan border in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is the world’s first cross-border free trade zone and the biggest duty-free shopping center in western China.
The China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in Beijing on August 12, 1978. This treaty is a continuation and development of the Joint Statement of 1972 between the Chinese and Japanese governments and of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. The normalization of relations with Japan is important because in the economic modernization of China, technology and capital investment from Japan could contribute significantly.
On January 1, 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established between China and the United States, the joint communique between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China was published in the two countries the month before. It is one of the major joint statements which constitute the political basis of China-U.S. relations. The Shanghai Communique was signed in Shanghai on February 28, 1972, after American President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, paving the way for the normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations. The Sino-U.S. Joint Communique dated August 17, 1982, cleared more issues in Sino-U.S. relations.
During the reform period, China entered into active cooperation with other countries of the world on the basis of its own strength, taking into account the principles of equality and mutual benefit. The world’s advanced technologies had to be adapted to China’s industry. Almost all the countries which experienced the modernization process faced the problem that this process would make the country Westernized in all aspects. Chinese reformers were aware of that risk and they did their best to modernize their country based on local conditions. If a country directly copies and applies foreign technologies, then it starts to import the mentality and culture behind that technology, which creates some conflicts in society.
China’s “Second Revolution”
Chinese President Xi Jinping described China’s reform and opening-up as “China’s second revolution” in his speech at the 2018 Boao Forum for Asia. “Today, the Chinese people can say with great pride that China’s second revolution, reform and opening-up, has not only changed the country extensively, but also greatly influenced the whole world,” he said.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge is formally put into use on October 24. Local residents are elated about the news.
Shenzhen is the first place Xi visited when he started his presidency. The city was considered to be the place where reform and opening-up began, and he has emphasized the importance of reform and opening-up at every opportunity. The Belt and Road Initiative, an important proposal of Xi’s foreign policy, can actually be seen as a natural result of the past 40 years. The Belt and Road Initiative is not an idea that the Chinese leader has thought up overnight. It has taken 40 years of experience in China to bring it to fruition. From this perspective, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as a new type of reform and opening-up, and this new venture is being carried into affect on a larger scale year by year.
But in the new era, China faces both opportunities and challenges. While China is expanding its opening-up, the United States, which is the world’s largest economy, promotes introversion and tries to make international organizations dysfunctional. China promotes economic globalization, the U.S. administration favors economic nationalism. China calls for a multilateral world order, while the U.S. administration calls for unilateral protectionism; and while China puts forward the idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind, Washington is actually isolating itself with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Opening-up Brings Wealth
Today a foreigner who wants to understand Chinese politics must first understand this country’s long history and rich culture. Not only the past 40 years of experience, but thousands of years of Chinese history have proved that the periods in which China was open to, and interacted with the outside world, brought great benefits both to China itself and to other countries in general. The historical Silk Road was the result of China’s interest in Central and Western Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220). The Tang Dynasty (618-907), considered to be the golden age of ancient China, is one of the most open periods of the country. The Tang culture greatly influenced many parts of East Asia, such as Korea and Japan. The Chinese, who established the world’s largest fleet during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), reached the African coast, and the exchanges between China and distant geographies reached astounding levels.
Today, China follows the historical Silk Road route and opens lines of cooperation extending to Western Asia, Africa, and even Latin America. It is also confronted with the responsibility of fulfilling its historical mission. China could turn 40 years of reform and opening-up into a new starting point and make 2018 a new milestone in Chinese history; thus, the Chinese people will be ready to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2019 with greater enthusiasm and bear witness to achieving the building of a moderately prosperous society in 2020.
EMRE DEMIR is an editor at China Media Group.