Chairman Mao's successors decreed that "getting rich is glorious". But despite all the talk of economic growth and success stories, for most ordinary Chinese it is still just a dream.
In Zhongshan, a 1,000-year-old village deep in China's under-developed west, up to 90% of the 700 inhabitants survive on government handouts, according to local official Zhou Jiling.
Many are looking after grandchildren whose parents have moved to cities far away on the coast to find work.
Some of these migrants visit their home villages for annual holidays, others once every few years and some not at all.
Rural China has benefited far less from reforms
Half an hour's walk away, up a steep winding path through the fields, 72-year-old Wang Yinqing lives in a single room with a packed mud floor.
She has been here since 1949, the year Mao led his peasant army to victory.
"Things got better then," she said. "He gave us solid houses. Before that they were built of bamboo."
Today she has electricity for the bare light bulb hanging from the rafters, but no refrigerator, television or telephone. For a toilet, she goes outside with the chickens.
Her daughters grew up hungry, she said, but they now earn just enough for their food and clothing, and sometimes send a little bit home.
She herself has never even seen the nearest city, Chongqing, even though it is just 100km (60 miles) away.
While she said China's reforms were "a good thing", they have largely passed her by, as they have many other people in China's countryside.
Poor getting poorer
Rural areas did well under the first phase of China's economic reforms. But since then agriculture has been neglected. The abandonment of free public health and other welfare systems and the decision to let some parts of the country get rich before others have all contributed to a huge and still growing wealth gap.
To talk of superpowers seems almost absurd when you head into the hills and remember that China still ranks just 94th in the United Nations Human Development Index.
China's poverty makes talk of superpower status premature
Many people are getting richer. But last year the number of people living in extreme poverty (defined as those with annual incomes of less than $77) actually rose, to just over 3% of the population - although admittedly this is the first officially recorded increase in 25 years of economic reforms.
Similarly, road-building and other big infrastructure programmes look impressive from a distance. But when you see some rural roads close-up, you come across an awful lot of cracks and pot-holes.
Contracts for both building and mending the roads tend to be in the hands of local officials who have close links to construction companies - one of many reasons why China's unique combination of communism and capitalism does not always leave everyone with a fair chance.
"Concepts we borrow from the West don't always fit in when applied to Chinese reality," said Cao Haili, a journalist working for Caijing magazine, noted for its exposes of the darker side of China's economic reforms.
Migrants are flooding Chongqing for work and better living standards
Corruption has multiplied with the massive investment and decentralisation that have been integral parts of the reforms.
The lack of transparency, accountability and rule of law become more apparent the further one goes from the centre of power.
Crime, local protectionism and regional competition - not to mention the simmering separatist movements on China's fringes - all add to a sense of fragmentation.
It is a trend that could bring about the Communist Party's downfall, as its leaders are the first to admit.
But they are in a quandary. They have had some success in controlling the breakneck speed of growth, averting - at least for now - rampant inflation and a crash in the banking system.
But slower growth will mean not enough new jobs for the 10m workers a year entering the urban employment market - not to mention the 14m still laid off from state-owned enterprises, the 95m migrants seeking work and an estimated 150m surplus labourers in the countryside.
Protests by laid-off workers take place daily, even at a time when the economy is doing well.
Chongqing is one place where jobseekers keep arriving and the boom shows no sign of slowing. With state banks being told to limit lending, private investment has taken over and annual growth is still as high as 12%.
"No one can say Chinese are poor," said one local businessman as he ushered a group of glamorous girls into his private room at a karaoke club, "when we can put down four million renminbi ($500,000) in cash for a new villa".
He did not mention that the farmers being moved off their land to make way for the villa would have had to work for more than 2,000 years to pay such a sum themselves.
The new leadership in Beijing says it is now doing more to tame the raw excesses of Chinese-style capitalism, and address the concerns of the marginalised.
It now talks about not only economic growth but also "quality of life".
According to Liu Haiming, a Beijing-based artist, Chinese people have become "shaky" in their excitement about money. They no longer relate to each other or care about the common good.
"All they think about are material things. They have misunderstood what being a developed country really means."
But in cities like Shanghai, migrant workers keep on coming, eager for their big chance.
Li Xiaobo works 10 hours a day in a marble processing factory, with no days off - in addition to a part-time job.
He shares a 10 square metre room with three co-workers.
He and his fellow migrants face discrimination over everything from getting a mortgage to finding a girlfriend.
He believes 98% of the migrants are unhappy with their conditions. But for him, it is still better than being back home in Hunan Province.
Seeing all the city's fine shops is "like a dream", he said.
This is the second article in a series about change in modern China. Click below for the first article: