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40 years of reform in China: Truly remarkable change since 1978

Around China

An Australian Sinologist recounts the tremendous changes that took place in China in the past four decades.

By Colin Mackerras

China SCIOUpdated: December 6, 2018

We mark now the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up policy, which began at the end of 1978. These comments are from one who has been visiting and living in China on a very frequent basis since before 1978, and who has visited China every year since 1978, except for 1984. 

My summation is that these have been possibly the most remarkable 40 years in China's long history, with enormous changes and achievements grand in their scale and overall extremely positive in their impact. I feel very honored to have been a witness to these changes and achievements.

The most important of these achievements has been the economic growth, which many observers have labeled as "miraculous." It has brought China from a relatively poor country to the world's second-largest economy.

I want to illustrate the change through two pictures I took from exactly the same place but at different times. The place is in Yan'an, northern Shaanxi province, which is often described as the "cradle of the revolution." The times were the summer of 1965 and this June. The first picture shows a bleak and grey mountain with very little greenery, a muddy river, and no modern buildings. The second shows a modern town. The mountain is now covered with greenery, the river flows better, and beside it there are green banks where once there was nothing but greyness and dirt. 

Yan'an, Shaanxi province, in the summer of 1965. [Photo provided by Colin Mackerras]

Yan'an, Shaanxi province, in June 2018. [Photo provided by Colin Mackerras]

Economic improvement takes many forms. The transport system has improved out of sight to include a vast complex of modern motorways. Even small cities are now home to excellent airports. Above all, China now has the world's best high-speed railway system. I've been on these trains many times and think they are simply wonderful: comfortable, smooth and reliable. They are also always on time. I recall once going on a train when there was a violent thunderstorm and heavy rain. The weather made virtually no difference. The train was only two minutes late and was as comfortable and smooth as ever.

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