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Christian Caryl: 1979 and the Birth of the Chinese Economic Miracle

Christian Caryl, the editor of Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. He is also the author of a new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, to be published in May.

It is inevitable, perhaps, that we tend to focus on leaders when we examine grand political and economic transitions. But they are not the only actors in these dramas. Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues triumphed precisely because they unleashed the creativity and the entrepreneurial urges of millions of Chinese. Many of them -- shocking though it might be to think -- were not even members of the Chinese Communist Party.

In January 1979, around the time that Deng was preparing for his trip to the United States, a young man named Rong Zhiren returned to his hometown of Guangzhou, historically known as Canton, the largest city in Guangdong province, up the river from Hong Kong. Rong had just turned 30, but he had relatively little in the way of concrete achievements to show for someone of his age. The reason was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A central part of the Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong's campaign against intellectualism, book learning, and the "Four Olds" (old habits, old ideas, old customs, and old culture). In 1966, he had ordered the closure of China's institutions of higher education. Over the ensuing years, 17 million students were dispatched to the countryside to learn the virtues of the simple life from the peasantry. University entrance examinations did not resume in China until autumn 1977. By early 1979, only 7 million students had made it back to the cities.

As the Cultural Revolution played out, the overwhelming majority of students stayed where they were assigned, which usually meant wasting their best years tilling the land in remote agricultural communes. Rong did not. Sent out to the countryside in 1969, he snuck away as soon as he had the chance. He spent the next decade dodging the police and living from odd jobs, such as drawing and tutoring. He lived with friends, moving from place to place. In December 1978, back in Guangzhou but still on the run, he heard a radio broadcast publicizing the results of the historic Third Plenum in Beijing, the meeting that sealed the triumph of Deng's pragmatic course of economic reform. Like millions of other Chinese, Rong understood that something fundamentally transformative was under way -- and that included an opening for entrepreneurship. "I knew this policy would last because Chinese people would want to get rich," as he later put it. In January 1979, he decided that he would be one of the first to take a chance. He applied for a business license. The bureaucratic obstacles sounded daunting: One of the requirements was a complete physical checkup to ensure that he had no infectious diseases. But it turned out to be a cinch. Rong sailed through the procedure in just a few days. (Nowadays it takes nearly three weeks.) The Guangdong government, eager to get things going, was already trying to encourage business creation....

Read entire article at Foreign Policy