Reform Era

All Grades, Government, History, Society Resource Collection
  • The Beijing Central Business District, or Beijing CBD is the primary area of finance, media, and business services in Beijing, China.


Over the last thirty years, the People’s Republic of China has undergone a series of dramatic economic and social reforms and consequently developed at an unprecedented rate. An estimated 500 million Chinese people have been brought out of poverty during this period, and an increasing number now count themselves among the country’s growing list of millionaires. At the same time, with China’s increasing prominence on the international scene, especially in its relation to its largest trading partner, the United States, the country’s influence on the world is the strongest it has been in over two hundred years. This dynamic promises to be a defining feature for international relations in the 21st century. Examining China’s extraordinary path, by taking into account both changing reform policies and the players behind these reforms, is crucial to understanding contemporary China’s government, culture, and society. This timeline views the reform era (1978-Present) from five different perspectives, placing a wide scope of analysis and reflections on the social impacts this fascinating and critical time period.

Most, if not all, of China’s astonishing successes can be attributed to the complex and penetrating reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and administered by a loyal team of reform-minded government officials. By the opening day of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, on December 18, 1978, the PRC leadership had already been moving away from the radical ideology of the Cultural Revolution years, which was officially called to an end a few short months before. Mao Zedong had died two years earlier, and Deng Xiaoping, recently reinstated after suffering his second purge, was keen to get the country back on firm ground. A veteran of the Long March and a respected political commander, Deng used his considerable influence to shift the power base away from Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, and bring back innovative and capable cadres who had been dismissed during the political purges of the 1950s and 60s, as well as promote more youthful, progressive government ministers. With this loyal foundation of reformist bureaucrats, including principal players like Zhao Ziyang, the country has marched ahead, rolling out new policies to boost agricultural output, reform education, impact family planning, and provide incentives to people to seek profits. Many pioneering individuals made huge fortunes, inconceivable just a few years earlier, and the national economy has grown by double-digit percentages nearly every year since, surviving relatively unscathed the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global recession in 2008.

These extraordinary accomplishments have brought with them incredible difficulties that remain a vital but often overlooked feature of China’s rise. An enormous population five times the size of the United States’, overburdened natural resources that could foment environmental catastrophe, corruption within the political system, a widening income gap, and stagnant judicial, political and cultural reforms all pose significant challenges to China’s future social stability and continued prosperity. Runaway inflation in the 1980s largely contributed to fitful national unrest that culminated in the six weeks of protests in Beijing during the spring of 1989. After a period of fiscal stability in the 1990s under the careful watch of Premier Zhu Rongji, inflation continues to be a critical issue today. The conservative backlash following the government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protestors almost derailed the reform period entirely.

How various Chinese citizens, from entrepreneurs to artists to China’s youth, have reacted to these reforms is an equally fascinating subject of inquiry. There is an undeniable resurgence in cultural pride as evidenced by the exuberant 2008 Beijing Olympics. At the same time, many individual citizens have called for increased political reforms to keep pace with the economic and social reforms, often at considerable risk. Others have turned to alternative communities (i.e. religious communities, online social groups, or civil society groups) to make the most of new social opportunities and address some of the challenges that China faces. In comparison with the previous socialist period, China during the reform era has provided citizens with many more options for social and cultural expression, which can often seem either discordant or invigorating depending on one’s perspective.

Taken together, the successes and challenges resulting from the reforms undertaken over the past thirty years provide a comprehensive framework for approaching and understanding contemporary 21st century China.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Government, History, Society Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.