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It's not a miracle: 40 years of hard work turned China into a powerhouse

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The achievement of the past 40 years was not a miracle; it was the hard work of more than a billion people that made it happen, Carl Benjaminsen, an editor and radio host at China Radio International, China Media Group, said.

By Carl Benjaminsen

China PlusUpdated: December 14, 2018

About a year ago, I was having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Sanlitun, a trendy part of central Beijing with shopping malls packed with international brands. With me were Italian and French friends who'd come to China on a government scholarship to study filmmaking.

The photocopy of the secret contract signed by Yan Hongchang and 17 other Xiaogang villagers in 1978 is kept at a museum in memorial of the reformed contract system. [Photo by Zhang Jiaqi/China SCIO]

At the restaurant, a woman in her mid-50s came over and asked if we'd take a photo with her mother. We obliged, and started chatting with them. Her mother, who was in her 70s, was on her first visit to Beijing and wanted a photo with us because this was the first chance she'd had to chat with people from overseas. And her visit to Beijing encompassed a few other firsts. Her first plane flight. Her first visit to a big city. It was, in fact, her first trip outside her rural county in Sichuan Province.

Our perfectly ordinary encounter would have been implausible forty years ago. Only a tiny number of people from overseas were living in China then. The country's domestic film industry took in $4.6 billion at the box office last year, but in the 1970s you wouldn't have come here to study film, as the industry was stagnant and little better than dead. And although today China and Vietnam are trading partners to the tune of $100 billion dollars last year, in 1979 they would faceoff on the battlefield.

The extraordinary changes that have taken place in the lives of the two people we met that night were due in no small part to the determination of another Sichuan local, Deng Xiaoping. He led the push to bring a decade of nationwide turmoil to an end with a five-day meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Jingxi Hotel in western Beijing on December 22, 1978. The communique that followed the meeting spoke of a shift to "socialist modernization", "the rapid development of production", and "acting in accordance with economic laws and attaching importance to the role of the law of value." It was the start of China's policy of reform and opening up.

As it happens, the next big step forward was taken far from the capital, in a small village called Xiaogang. Its residents were desperately poor, food was in short supply, and that year's harvest was dismal. The villagers agreed to secretly split up their collective farmland. Each family would manage one small plot, and they could keep what they grew beyond their share of the village's production quota. In the context of decades of collectivization and a tightly-controlled command economy, this was an idea so dangerous that they each signed a pact saying they'd look after the children of any farmer punished – perhaps even executed – if their plan was uncovered. The next year, the same land, farmed with the same tools, and growing the same crops, produced a harvest bigger than the previous five years combined. Instead of being punished, the village's approach spread across the country.

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