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  • 40 years of reform and opening-up: A new starting point on China's journey
    2018-08-29    author:

    Just as spring brings the thawing of ice and snow, a wave of reform swept across China in 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. This reform corresponded to the trends of the day and followed the wishes of the people. They shook free of ossified ways of thinking, broke through the barriers of the old systems, and charted a path towards growth and prosperity.

    Xiaogang village on June 11, 2018. [Photo by Zhang Jiaqi/]

    Reform pioneers: A businessman and 18 farmers

    As the saying goes, "Heroes are products of their times." Here are two examples from the late 1970s.

    Nian Guangjiu, originally an illiterate farmer from east China's Anhui province, started a business selling sunflower seeds and became rich by doing honest labor. In 1978, he planned to enlarge his business. In 1979, he registered the trademark Shazi Guazi ("Fool's Sunflower Seeds"), becoming the owner of an enterprise of nearly 100 employees.

    However, hiring workers was still interpreted as an "act of exploitation" in China at that time. Nian's entrepreneurship soon triggered a heated debate. He was investigated and put in jail.

    Luckily, the case was reported to Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's reform and opening-up. Regardless of the conservative voices in the Party, Deng said putting Nian out of business would make people anxious and that would do no good. With this wise explanation, Deng successfully avoided an ideological battle and steered the Chinese economy on the right course.

    Also in 1978, 18 farmers in Xiaogang village, Anhui province, risked their lives to sign a secret contract that divided farmland – then owned by the People's Commune – into pieces for each family to cultivate. With their names and fingerprints on the contract, the 18 villagers promised that each household would deliver a full quota of grain to the state and to the commune, and keep whatever remained.

    Before 1978, Xiaogang village was infamous for its poverty. Almost all the local families had to roam the countryside begging after the autumn harvest. The contract that allocated the farmland to each household fired locals' enthusiasm for agricultural production. One year later, the villagers of Xiaogang had begun to enjoy a much better life.

    Their practice drew close attention from the Party and the central government. It was later publicly embraced by Deng in the early 1980s, then widely implemented across the country, thus inadvertently lighting the torch for China's rural reform.