Can China Boom 40 More Years? Those Who Lived It Aren’t Sure

(Bloomberg) -- Your opinion about China’s the next 40 years of “reform and opening up” has a lot to do with how much you benefited from the first 40. A cross section of citizens -- young and old, rich and poor, working and retired -- shared divergent views on the policy ahead of President Xi Jinping’s speech marking its four-decade anniversary. The celebration kicks off at 10 a.m. in Beijing today, Xinhua reported.

Their feelings about Deng Xiaoping’s landmark reforms and confidence in China’s future largely depended on how much their economic fortunes had risen as a result of its opening. While the policies lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty, the growing wealth gap is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for China’s leaders. And as the nation grapples with a slowing economy and trade war with the U.S. -- even those who succeeded because of Deng’s reforms were cautious about whether the growth could be sustained.

Double-Edged Progress

China’s reform turned Zhi Xinggen from a rice farmer to auto-parts factory entrepreneur in his village in Jiangsu province. “Farmers in the surrounding villages are no longer worried about food in their stomach, and some are having wealthy lives thanks to the reform,” said Zhi, who’s in his 60s and owns a small factory.

But progress has been double-edged, made at the “cost of environmental pollution” while many farms have vanished. He’s been hurt by the country’s economic slowdown as weak domestic demand, rising labor costs and difficulty accessing bank loans make it hard to expand his business.

‘Even Better’

Mi Ruiliang, a retired civil servant who plans to watch the speech while at a meeting of his local party branch, said changes brought by reform are “like a dream.”

“Before, we would watch the same films, the same operas, again and again for entertainment. Everything was rationed, everything was in scarcity,” he said. “I think things will be even better in the next 40 years under the leadership of Xi. That is why the Americans are so anxious.”

‘Left Behind’

A bicycle repairman surnamed Hou tells a different story. Hou, who declined to provide his full name, runs a repair stand that’s been fixing bikes in Beijing’s hutongs -- traditional neighborhoods made up of narrow alleyways and run-down homes -- for some 80 years. His father opened it before the Communist revolution of 1949 virtually eliminated private enterprise in China. “’Reform and opening up’ was one step forward, one step back,” Hou said. “If you were powerful or able, you could get really rich. Others got left behind.” 

Can China Boom 40 More Years? Those Who Lived It Aren’t Sure

“There’s a movement against small private businesses now and towards collectivization,” he added. “That’s just what the policy is.”

For example, competition has made business hard, and Xi’s campaign tighten to restrictions on small merchants in hutongs makes it difficult for Hou to find parts. Chinese are now also the world’s biggest buyers of new cars.

‘Irreversible’ Policies

Shanquan Li, a portfolio manager at OppenheimerFunds Inc. in New York, worked at the Development Research Center of China’s State Council in the 1980s, participating in economic policy research.

He remains optimistic about China’s future, primarily because “China’s economic reform and open policy are irreversible,” he said. “It is impossible for China to go back to the old economic regime” or to imagine China will close its door after becoming “an important part of the world.”

Rural-Urban Divide

Qin Jiner, 50, said the benefits of reform have been felt much more in cities than in her village in Hebei province. She makes three times more as a part-time cleaner in Beijing than family members growing corn and wheat back home. This year’s harvest only brought in 7,000 yuan ($1,014) as grain prices declined, she said.

“There is still no heating in the village and farmers don’t have pensions like urban citizens do when they get old,” said Qin. Decades into reform, “the younger generation all want to stay in cities, they do not like the countryside.”

World Stage

Futures trader David Chen has lived what many would consider the Chinese dream. Born in the 1960s, he went to college, married, had a child, bought an apartment and worked steadily in finance. “Our generation is quite lucky as we got the good times brought by reform and opening up,” he said.

China now grapples with a balance between exerting state control and opening for business with the world. “The Chinese are still not very confident with global competition, as we are not very familiar with foreign countries’ practices,” he said. State-owned enterprises “are constrained by bureaucratic obstacles and state policies.”

Lack of Purpose

Hu Gang, a pharmaceutical researcher in Chengdu, said he’s “disgusted” by the government’s crackdown on free speech and hasn’t watched the news in a year.

“We now have cars, homes and can travel abroad,” he said, but “most people feel isolated and lack a sense of purpose besides earning more money.” The next 40 years “will not be as good,” he said. “The decisions made are often arbitrary and we concentrate our resources on doing things that may be wrong. My hopes for smooth and speedy economic development are not high, given the situation with the U.S.”

‘Harder to Build’

Engineer Liu Yang is a member of the Communist Party and works for a state-owned company in Beijing. He was 10 years old in 1978. The greatest change for the average person has been “materialism,” he said. “Life has gotten much better in what we eat, wear, the apartments we live in and how we get around.”

Today’s development goes “hand in hand” with internal forces hindering China’s growth, he said -- including rising housing prices and a wealth gap. “Changes will not happen as quickly in the next 40 years, just like it gets harder to build a building the higher up you go,” he said.

Modern Laws

When Deng began his economic project, finance executive Xu Feng was in first grade. Back then, there was no industrial smog hanging over China’s cities.

These four decades have been “the first time in history that China proactively tried to integrate itself with the rest of the world, and get in line for its share of the rewards of modern society,” he said. “Whether will we be able to find and continue down the right path depends on if China can abide by the rules and laws” of that society.

‘Going in Reverse’

Born in 1982, Huang is from Hubei province and lives in Tokyo. He recalled buying steamed buns using food coupons even in 1992. Like millions of other young Chinese, he’s heard the older generation talk about the vast change wrought by the country’s opening. “Patched-up clothing and horse-drawn carts became rare, people are able to travel to farther places,” he said.

“Some people say that China is going in reverse -- I’d say that’s true in some respects,” he said. “China has to clarify its priorities. Not knowing where we want to go is the greatest crisis for for us.”

Direction Over Speed

Hu Jianzhong, a retired university faculty member, was 20 years old in 1978 when Deng introduced his reforms. “One memory that stands out, out of everything else, is during the first days of the reform, passing a street vendor selling bananas,” he said. He paused, but didn’t buy one. “I remember my resolve then to become so rich that I could eat bananas to my heart’s content,” he said.

Development will be slower over the next 40 years, said Hu. “On the first 30 meters of a sprint, you’re able to dash at a very high speed, but you will also expend a lot of that energy and lose that pace as you go,” he said. “Direction now is more important than speed.”

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