BY JEREMY GARLICK
Forty years have passed since Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s modern economic development and opening-up to the world. During the course, China has changed beyond recognition. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, with hunger becoming a thing of the past for most of the nation’s population.
In 1978, the vast majority of China’s population lived in great hardship in the countryside, forced to supply their needs from their own back-breaking labor. In 2018, over half of the nation lives in cities, in modern apartments with electricity and running water.
Health care has improved immeasurably. Child mortality is down. Life expectancy has soared to more than 70 years.
Transport has improved by leaps and bounds. The high-speed train network is the world’s most extensive, and still growing. Airports are technologically advanced and Chinese airlines operate with excellent safety records.
All these advances owe their existence to Deng’s willingness to experiment with free trade zones and encourage new modes of entrepreneurship. Foreign investment brought in waves of money that was utilized to fuel a revolution in industrial production.
Of course, there have been drawbacks to the breakneck development. Air pollution and environmental damage have reached critical proportions. But China’s government is committed to dealing with these problems. Investment in green technologies is now higher in China than any other country. Acquisitions of foreign renewable energy firms are at an all-time high. The transformation of China is still in progress, not yet complete.
All these changes owe their existence to Deng’s vision and the will of China’s citizens to implement them. China’s economic reforms emerged from an attitude of experimentation characterized as “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” It was the encouragement of entrepreneurial risk-taking as an opportunity too good to miss that gave China’s rapid rise its momentum.
The continuation of Deng’s policies is Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative. This grand project, launched in 2013, with the aim to connect more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, builds on China’s earlier “going out” policy.
The Belt and Road initiative is also based on a pragmatic spirit of adventure. It takes account of the need to realize that being risk-averse is inherently risky. Of course, this means that some Belt and Road projects face high risks. But this is no different to the pattern of economic reforms under Deng, who knew that some of the experiments he oversaw would not work out. The key was that he also knew that some of them would be game-changing.
A good example of this is the Special Economic Zones or SEZs. As is now well-known, the grandest SEZ experiment took place in Shenzhen, which was just a village of 30,000 when reforms began.
What is less well-known now is that Shenzhen’s growth to a city of more than 12,000,000 inhabitants was very far from guaranteed. Deng took a risk – and the result was one of China’s most booming centers of industry.
Thus, the Belt and Road initiative can be seen as a transition of China’s 40 years of opening-up into the overseas arena. What China needs to make sure is to communicate the methods and goals of the initiative as clearly as it has managed to get the world to understand the nation’s rise over the last 40 years.
This is no easy task. There are skeptics as well as enthusiasts, and the former are not easily convinced of the merits of China’s plan.
Nevertheless, if the energy of four decades of successful domestic reforms can be translated into a zone of economic cooperation which begins to transform large swathes of Asia, Europe and Africa, it will be a clear sign that China’s miracle can become the world’s miracle.
(The author is a lecturer in international relations with the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies at the University of Economics in Prague. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Belt and Road mirrors China’s enterprising spirit behind reform and opening-up
BY JEREMY GARLICK