Since its founding in 1949 the People’s Republic of China has pursued a modernist vision of rapid economic development, with several policy variants. From the 1950s through the 1970s, China followed the Soviet model of development, with industrial production in the hands of the central government and agricultural production controlled by a network of rural collectives.
The plenary session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978 marked the beginning of a suite of economic reform policies known as Reform and Opening (gaige kaifang). Thirty years of gradual reform have brought sweeping social and economic changes, including the return of smallholder agriculture under the Household Responsibility System, the privatization of industrial production, greater integration into the world economy, and the rise of a consumer class. China’s gross domestic product has grown nearly 10% per year over that time period, and its economy is expected to be the largest in the world within the next two decades.
More than any other concept, development is a salient national goal that serves as a rallying point for various administrative levels of the Chinese government. Development in the Chinese context contains both materialist and normative aspects. On the material side, development policies and practices aim to improve living standards for the Chinese citizenry by increasing agricultural and industrial outputs, generating employment opportunities, and increasing household incomes.
On the normative side, these policies and practices are also laden with intangible yet significant goals such as the creation of “modern” citizens and the realization of true economic and social competitiveness on the world stage. In this regard, development entails overcoming what is collectively perceived as the nation’s backward, “feudal” past by leveraging science and technology in a march toward an imagined, if uncertain, future of prosperity. A common billboard, visible in many Chinese cities during the early part of this decade, featured the smiling face of Deng Xiaoping, architect of the Reform and Opening policies, with a bold caption: “Development is the indisputable truth” (Fazhan cai shi ying daoli).
Many of the problems facing China (rural-urban migration, uneven distribution of wealth, and the rapid exploitation of natural resources, among others) are shared with other developing nations. But the Chinese case is unique in its scale and in its pace. To examine economic development in contemporary China is to witness one-fifth of humanity (more than 1.3 billion people) undergoing some of the most dramatic changes to livelihood and lifestyle in history. In China, things happen on a grand scale.