When historians look back at the last decades of the 20th century, they might well point to 1979 as a watershed. That year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, digging its grave as a superpower. It was also the year that China began its economic reforms. They were launched at a most unlikely gathering, the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, held in December 1978. Before the formal meetings, at a working-group session, the newly empowered party boss, Deng Xiaoping, gave a speech that turned out to be the most important one in modern Chinese history. He urged that the regime focus on development and modernization, and let facts—not ideology—guide its path. "It doesn't matter if it is a black cat or a white cat," Deng often said. "As long as it can catch mice, it's a good cat." Since then, China has done just that, pursued a modernization path that is ruthlessly pragmatic and nonideological.
The results have been astonishing. China has grown around 9 percent a year for more than 25 years, the fastest growth rate for a major economy in recorded history. In that same period it has moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average Chinese person's income. And all this has happened, so far, without catastrophic social upheavals. The Chinese leadership has to be given credit for this historic achievement...
Experts say that the Chinese Communist Party has been seriously discussing political reforms and studying dominant single parties from Sweden to Singapore, to understand how it might maintain its position in a more open political system. "The smartest people in the government are studying these issues," a well-placed Beijing resident told me. But politics is often about more than smarts. In any event, how Beijing's mandarins end up handling their own people might have much to do with how China ends up handling the world.
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