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It has been 30 years since China embarked on the greatest economic experiment in human history. In that time, the country has emerged from poverty and chaos to become one of the leading economic powers. It is tempting to call China’s astounding growth an economic miracle, but the trajectory of the last three decades has been the product of planning, innovation and carefully tended capitalism. Today, China confronts many of the old challenges — growth has been uneven, leaving many Chinese untouched by the fruits of success — and new ones too. The current economic crisis and new constraints imposed by energy shortages and climate change demand new thinking every bit as bold as that embraced in 1978.

Three decades ago, China’s future was uncertain. The Cultural Revolution was a blight on the nation’s soul and left and right battled for supremacy in the post-Mao world. On Dec. 8, 1978, the wily survivor Deng Xiaoping was named head of the Communist Party, and he told the Third Plenum that the country should embrace reform and opening. At that time, the first cautious steps included small-scale private farming, a reversal of Mao’s communal agriculture and industry. Farmers’ energies — and earnings — were cut loose, left for themselves to enjoy. Two years later, Deng picked Shenzhen, a then quiet fishing village in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, as the site of the first Special Economic Zone to allow foreign investment and export manufacturing. With that, the boom began.

The results have been striking. The economy has grown at an average rate of 9.8 percent since 1978; for more than half that time, growth has been in double digits. Today, China is either the third- or fourth-largest economy in the world. Annual per capita income has gone from 380 yuan in 1978 to about 19,000 yuan ($2,760) in 2007. The number of Chinese living in absolute poverty — less than $1 a day — has dropped from 800 million to more than 10 million. (Millions more live on $1 to $2 a day.) In 1978, the much-sought “four big things” consisted of a bicycle, a radio, a sewing machine and a watch. Today, almost every Chinese home has one television and 15 million families have private cars. Home ownership is on the rise and the country is filled with market watchers who match the enthusiasm (and nervousness) of investors in Tokyo, New York or London.

The process has not been smooth. There have been rear-guard battles fought by leftists who despair of the loss of socialist ideals — and the loss of perks that were once theirs by right but now often belong to successful capitalists. Corruption is rampant, environmental destruction is breathtaking — literally, for anyone who knows the murky Chinese skies — and the income disparities are some of the worst in the world. Today, the country looks with trepidation at the global slowdown, and the Chinese Communist Party, whose reformist inclinations are not evident when it comes to politics, is now focused on sustaining the growth that is the foundation of its legitimacy.

Chinese policy has been guided by two maxims. The first is Deng’s famous quip that “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” In other words, pragmatism, not ideology, would be China’s compass. The second rule is that the country would “cross the river while feeling for the stones.” An experiment of this nature is unprecedented; there is no guide.

Celebrating 30 years of progress, Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao warned that the country faces difficult times. Economic growth has slowed from 11.4 percent in 2007 to 9 percent this year, and next year could drop below 8 percent, the level at which new market entrants readily find jobs. When growth dips below the 8 percent mark, officials get nervous. In his speech, Mr. Hu noted that economic development is critical to achieving “enduring peace and stability” and warned that “nothing can be done without stability.”

In the face of declining exports, factory closings and massive layoffs, Beijing has adopted a 4 trillion yuan stimulus plan that aims to boost spending on much-needed domestic infrastructure. China has depended on foreign markets to fire its economic engine. Now, with overseas economies battling the downturn, China must stimulate domestic demand to generate growth.

This change is only part of a broader economic redirection. While growth and wealth have fired consumers, China is already the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese die prematurely as a result of bad air and water and contaminated products. One of China’s environmental officials conceded that “China’s reform and opening has achieved in 30 years the economic gains of more than 100 years in the West — yet more than 100 years of environmental pollution in the West have materialized in 30 years in China.”

This grim assessment seems out of place amid the celebration of 30 years of growth and transformation. But Chinese officials understand the challenges ahead. If they can muster the same focus and determination to tackle these problems, we are confident that they will solve them.

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