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.

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

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.

The milestone plenum: A starting point

The Third Plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee, held in December 1978, was one of the milestone events in the history of contemporary China.

Influenced by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the ultra-left trend of thought, China's political, economic and social development suffered a serious setback, with the national economy at that time on the brink of collapse. Social productivity was extremely low and consumer goods were seriously deficient. A sizeable gap also grew between the economies, science and technology of China and developed countries.

The Third Plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee reestablished the ideological line of seeking truth from facts, shifted the focus of the Party's work to socialist modernization, implemented reform and opening up, and established the second generation of central leadership with Deng Xiaoping at the core.

At a working conference of the CPC Central Committee held before the plenum, Deng delivered a speech which turned out to be the keynote of the plenum. In this speech he explained in detail that people should emancipate their minds, seek truth from facts, and unite as one to face the future. The speech provided a theoretical guarantee that things would be set right.

The plenum had profound historical significance on the fate of the Party and the state. It was the starting point of China's reform and opening up and, more extensively, the starting point of the path to socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Facts and figures from the journey of reform

Mao Zedong said, "Only the people are the driving force behind the creation of world history."

Deng Xiaoping said, "Development is the absolute principle."

Xi Jinping said, "Happiness is achieved through hard work."

China's accomplishments of the past four decades reflect the best interpretations of its leaders' wise words.

Following are just a few of the highlights from the timeline of reform:

In 1980, 19-year-old Zhang Huamei from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, became China's first registered private-sector business owner.

In 1983, the first CCTV New Year's Gala was held in Beijing. It has become the most-watched TV program for entertainment among the Chinese people.

In 1987, the American fast-food company KFC launched a chain in Beijing, becoming the first of its kind in China.

In 1989, a stock investor named Yang Huaiding was among the first Chinese people to discover opportunities in the T-bond market. He was nicknamed "Millionaire Yang."

In 1990, the Shanghai Stock Exchange opened for business, marking the formal start of China's capital market.

In 1994, the Chinese 64K international line opened, achieving connection with the global internet.

In 2001, China formally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) to accelerate its integration into the international community and push its economic development into a fast track of globalization.

In 2008, China hosted the Olympic Games, capturing worldwide attention.

In 2013, President Xi put forward the Belt and Road Initiative and a vision of building a community with a shared future for all mankind. This demonstrated that China is a major country willing to bravely shoulder its due responsibilities.

In 2016, China hosted the G20 Hangzhou Summit, becoming the promoter and leading force of globalization.

From 1978 to 2018, China's GDP increased 224 times, ranking second in the world, up from 10th. Its share in the world economy increased from 1.8 percent to 15 percent, with the total amount exceeding 80 trillion yuan, making it the second-largest economy in the world.

The facts and figures above add up to one conclusion: "Reform and opening up has been the only path to the development and progress of contemporary China, and the only path to the realization of the Chinese Dream." The statement is quoted from Xi's 2018 New Year's Address in Beijing.

Going forward with a dream

In the year 2018, China stands at a new starting point. With four decades of hard work behind us, socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era. This is a historic juncture in China's development. The Chinese nation has achieved tremendous transformation; it has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong; it has come to embrace the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation.

China has made great progress in various fields, including the successful launch of the Tiangong-2 space lab and the deep-sea manned submersible Jiaolong, as well as aircraft carriers and high-speed rails. Moreover, the Chinese people have firm confidence in the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics. At this new historic juncture, it is necessary for us to affirm our achievements and at the same time be fully aware of the challenges ahead.

China currently has a population of 1.3 billion – a driving force for reform and opening up. The Chinese people are advancing toward realization of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. The central government has developed new ideas and taken new measures to lead the way forward. From this new starting point, reform and opening up will only continue its steady progress.

Wang Xiaohui is the editor-in-chief of China.org.cn.