Zheng Shiqing lives and works in a small room with an earth floor in the tiny village of Zhuanshanzi, high up a twisting mountain road in northern China. The padded curtain in place of a door does little to keep the winter at bay, and his breath curls white through the air. He has heart problems and should retire but cannot — medical treatment has eaten away his meager savings. His sons are unemployed and his family of five largely depends on his 10,000 yuan (US$1,400) annual earnings.
But Zheng, 53, is one of China’s winners, one of hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty since the launch of economic reforms three decades ago.
“Life is so much better, you can’t even compare it — 100 times better than before,” said the dentist, who works with a basic drill and little other equipment. “We lived in really crappy houses and had no property. We worked for the big commune and only got 400g of food a day — we were hungry. We had maize flour and sweet potatoes; there was meat once a year at spring festival and even vegetable oil was rare. Pigs these days won’t eat what we had back then.”
“People used oil lamps and we had to carry water from the well. Now there’s running water and electricity,” he said.
Thirty years ago, the third plenum of the 11th central committee of the Chinese Communist Party opened in Beijing, about 100km from Zheng’s village. All month the state media have feted the meeting and late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) victory over Maoist diehards as he wrested control of economic policy and launched the reforms that have altered China beyond all recognition.
China was once an economic powerhouse, but by 1978 it was languishing in poverty and isolation.
Now it is the world’s fourth-largest economy, with endless highways, swelling cities, vast factories and luxurious boutiques. Over three decades, the economy has grown on average by 9.8 percent a year. Grain production is 65 percent higher. Four-fifths of the world’s toys are made here and almost three-fifths of its clothing.
The statistics are staggering, but they conceal as much about the reforms as they reveal. Deng famously compared the process to “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” and China has frequently halted midstream.
From the first, reform has been a messy, fractured process driven by people’s demands as well as political leadership. Farmers in Xiaogang village, Anhui Province, formed a secret pact to divide up the land and farm it separately, risking severe punishment. Deng did not promote the measure until two years later. Meanwhile, Beijing residents turned a stretch of brick into the Democracy Wall — putting up posters calling for opening up and reform.
Lai Hongyi (賴洪毅), an expert on the reforms at the University of Nottingham, England, argues that the dismantling of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) economic policies resulted from an interplay of factors.
“There were elements of local initiative, such as household farming ... but they led to intense debate within the leadership and it was only through the intervention of reformist leaders that they were allowed to continue and expand,” he said.
Now Beijing is studying a new set of figures. The economic crisis is hitting China faster and harder than anyone expected. GDP soared by 11.9 percent last year; but in the third quarter of this year, growth fell to 9 percent. This week, the IMF warned it could slump as low as 5 percent next year.