According to the World Bank, China’s economic rise has been, “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” In order to appreciate the scale of China’s stunning development, picture the Middle Kingdom in the early 1970’s: an entire nation dressed in standard dark-blue and grey tunics purchased food with state-rationed stamps, televisions were community-shared commodities, everyone rode bicycles, and over 80% of the population lived in abject poverty in the countryside. Since market reforms were instituted in 1978, however, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has averaged almost 10% annual growth, and approximately 800,000,000 (!) people have been lifted out of poverty. Fast forward to China today, and a visitor will find a country plugged into digital technologies, with high-speed railways connecting cities overcrowded with modern cars and teeming with people recently moved from the countryside.
What lies behind this remarkable transformation? One of the most fundamental causes of China’s economic development was Deng Xiaoping’s influential behind-the-scenes decision-making after Mao’s death. Deftly maneuvering China’s levers of power, Deng emancipated the country from ideologically determined policies and pragmatically directed the opening and reform of China’s economy. But Deng is only one man, and China is a country of 1.3 billion people. His leadership is only part of the story.