Page last updated at 00:59 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Chinese learn to live with reform

Thirty years ago, China's leader Deng Xiaoping launched a series of sweeping economic reforms. The BBC's Michael Bristow looks at how these momentous changes have affected ordinary people.

Tourists next to a statue of Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping is credited with launching sweeping economic reforms
For those who value fine dining, the Yuebin Restaurant, tucked away in a Beijing back alley, might not be their first choice.

With its whitewashed walls and plain furniture, it is not much to look at. The food, too, is simple Beijing home-style cooking.

But the restaurant is more important than it looks. Thirty years ago, China embarked on a reform programme that has transformed the country, and continues to do so today.

The Yuebin was Beijing's first privately-run restaurant to open after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began his revolutionary reforms.

Deng's policy shift, called Reform and Opening Up, fundamentally changed the way the Chinese economy functions.

Under Chairman Mao Zedong, everything was owned by the state, but the reforms have allowed private firms, like the Yuebin Restaurant, to flourish.

The restaurant was opened by Guo Peiji and his wife, Liu Guixian, in 1980 in their small home. They still run the restaurant today.

Guo Peiji
Guo Peiji and his wife opened Beijing's first privately run restaurant
When they began, the couple had just a few tables and chairs and did their own cooking. They sold whatever they could buy at local markets.

"On the first day we had 36 yuan ($5.20, 3.60) to buy some vegetables and duck. We made a profit of around 50 yuan," said Mr Guo, now 75.

'Capitalist roaders'

When the restaurant first opened, not everyone welcomed the move.

In the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic political campaign that virtually paralysed the country from 1966-76, private businesses were not allowed.

Anyone accused of being a "capitalist roader" could be thrown in prison - or face a worse fate.

"Some people said the restaurant was capitalism. But after a year, many of those who said that themselves started selling things," recalled Mr Guo.

The results of China's economic reforms have been amazing. In just a few years, tens of millions of people have been able to escape poverty.


According to the World Bank, the average income was just $293 in 1985. But in 2006, that figure had risen to $2,025.

Society has also loosened up. Chinese people have now more freedom to choose such things as where to live, what to wear and which career to pursue.

But despite the obvious material benefits reform has brought, some people are still nostalgic about a past that often seemed more secure.

The reforms have swept away many free state benefits, covering health and education, that people had come to expect - and corruption now seems to plague all sectors of society.

Only slowly is the government rebuilding a social security safety net.

"Suddenly people have discovered that they have to worry a lot about their children's education and their employment," said Chinese journalist Li Xing.

"They've discovered that medical bills have shot up, so they fear that they don't have enough to pay for them."

Rising inequality

And although reforms have brought benefits to almost everyone, not everyone has benefited equally.

China's economic miracle has been partly built on the backs of migrant workers, of which the government says there are currently 210 million.

These are farmers who leave their fields to work in the cities.

But the children of this migrant population do not have the right to a free education when they move.

Special schools have been set up in most cities, and although they receive a little support from city governments, these schools mostly rely on the fees paid by their pupils.

"It's my dream to see migrant children attend the same schools as ordinary city kids," said Zhang Gezhen, headmaster of one such school, in a shabby suburb of Beijing.

Mingyuan School
Most cities have special schools for migrant workers' children
Providing all Chinese people with adequate benefits is going to be a key challenge over the next few years, according to World Bank President Robert Zoellick - and Chinese people will not want to wait forever to get them.

"The 30 years of success have raised expectations in China," he told the BBC.

"There is goodwill and pride but, at the same time, we have a new generation coming up and they will be impatient."

But working out what people want from future reforms will not be easy in a country that is still run by one party that does not have to test its popularity at the polls.

There have been enormous social and economic changes in China over the last three decades, but few political reforms - and that could be a problem.

"The decision-making process is a consensual group process, but [China's leaders] are very attentive to the idea that they have to be responsive to public moods," said the World Bank president.

"They know that for all they have accomplished and all the confidence they have won, this is a serious challenge."

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