Reform and Opening Up: Milestone Events

From December 18 to 22, 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was held in Beijing, which passed the historic decision to shift the focus of the Party and country’s work to economic development.

China has maintained fast development and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the past 40 years. The 40 milesone events listed below showcase the country's amazing transformation.

1978: Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China 

From December 18 to 22, 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was held in Beijing, which passed the historic decision to shift the focus of the Party and country’s work to economic development. This meeting marked the start of China’s reform and opening up and socialist modernization.  

1978: Household Contract Responsibility System

Photo by Wang Qiang.

On the evening of November 24, 1978, 18 farmers from Xiaogang Village in Anhui Province signed a contract, according to which its farmland would be separated and contracted to each household. This was the start of what was then called the Household Contract Responsibility System, and the village reaped a good harvest the following year. The Household Contract Responsibility System unleashed the productive forces in rural areas and greatly aroused the enthusiasm of farmers, making it the most important reform of rural production management systems in the early stage of China’s reform and opening up.

1979: Shenzhen Special Economic Zone 

Shenzhen was designated as a Special Economic Zone along with Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen. On July 8, 1979, an infrastructure project in Shekou Industrial Zone in Shenzhen began construction. The idea of innovation and the pioneering spirit of looking to the accomplishments of others exerted a major influence on China’s reform and opening up and spread to the whole nation. China’s opening accelerated thereafter.  

1979: Diplomatic Ties between China and U.S. Established

After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which broke the ice between the two countries, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States formally established diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level in 1979. This milestone event opened the door for China’s exchange with the West and its gradual absorption of trends of the world.

1980: First Private Restaurant Opens

In 1980, the first private restaurant, Yuebin, opened. Despite its humble space and relatively simple decoration, it was still something new. It benefited from the policy of opening up and invigorating the economy proposed at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee.

1981: Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the PRC 

In June 1981, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee approved the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the PRC, correctly summarizing the major historical events of the Party since the founding of the PRC, particularly the “cultural revolution.” The Resolution realistically evaluated the historic role played by Mao Zedong in the Chinese revolution and fully elaborated on the great significance of Mao Zedong Thought as the guiding ideology of the Party, laying critical political foundation for China’s development.  

1982: Constitution Amended

In 1982, the Constitution was amended extensively and approved by the Fifth Session of the Fifth National People’s Congress. The amendment stated that the basic task of the nation in the years to come would be to focus its effort on socialist modernization, especially economic development. It also stated that all citizens in China are equal before the law and that no organization or individual is privileged above the Constitution and laws.   

1985: Disarmament 

From mid-1985 to the end of 1987, under the leadership by Deng Xiaoping, then chairman of the Central Military Commission, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army cut one million soldiers. All types of institutions devoted to national defense were merged or closed as 40 percent of personnel were discharged. The former 11 military regions were reorganized into seven.   

1988: Hainan Becomes a Province 

On April 26, 1988, the People’s Government of Hainan Province was established at No. 59 Haifu Avenue. Hainan Island was designated as a Special Economic Zone the same year. A great number of investors and entrepreneurs headed for the southern island. Thanks to their efforts, the formerly underdeveloped island has become a major draw across all seasons. In April 2018, China made a further step on reform and opening up by supporting Hainan to become a pilot free trade zone across the entire island. Hainan will continue to play the role of a window of reform and opening up.

1989: Housing System Reform 

Photo by Sima Xiaomeng.

In 1989, citizens in Beijing who purchased publicly owned apartments first collected their real estate certificates, marking the start of housing system reform in the city. The welfare housing program that had been implemented since the founding of the PRC in 1949 was gradually abolished, and reform towards commercialization of housing was launched across the nation.

1989: Project Hope

A program aiming to help children in impoverished areas receive school education was launched by the China Youth Development Foundation in 1989, and is called “Project Hope.” By building primary schools, funding children’s return to school and improving the conditions of schools in rural areas, the program changed the lives of millions of children.  

1990: China’s Stock Market Born 

In March 1990, Shanghai and Shenzhen were allowed to pilot public offering of shares. The two cities issued regulations on the issuance and trading of securities. In December of the same year, both Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange opened.  

1992: Deng’s Southern Tour 

From January 18 to February 21, 1992, Deng Xiaoping visited southern cities including Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai and made important remarks. He proposed that China seize the opportunity to accelerate progress of reform and opening up to lift the economy to a new level. His remarks laid the ideological foundation for the path of socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics and injected new impetus into the country’s reform and opening up.  

1992: Shanghai Leads Breaking the “Iron Rice Bowl”

In March 1992, workers of Shanghai Diesel Engine Factory signed a labor contract. Employees of the factory transformed from permanent workers to contract workers, effectively losing the “Iron Rice Bowl” offered by state-owned enterprises. As the reform of state-owned enterprises deepened, China began to combine the basic system of socialism with the development of a market economy to build a socialist market economy. 

1992: First McDonald’s Opens in Beijing

On April 23, 1992, the first McDonald’s in China opened on Wangfujing Street in Beijing. It was then the world’s largest, with 700 seats and 29 checkout counters, and attracted over 40,000 diners on its first day of operation.  

1993: Wang-Koo Meeting 

In April 1993, the first “Wang-Koo Meeting” was held in Singapore. Based on the “1992 Consensus,” Wang Daohan, then head of the Chinese mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), and Koo Chen-fu, then chairman of the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), met in Singapore, which was the first meeting across the Taiwan Straits after four decades of severance, a historical progress of cross-Strait relations.  

1995: Invigorating China through Science and Education

In May 1995, China issued the Decision of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council Concerning the Acceleration of Advancement of Science and Technology, launching the Strategy of Invigorating China through Science and Education. It aimed to accelerate the advancement of science and technology and implement the idea that “science and technology constitute a primary productive force.”  

1997: Hong Kong’s Return to the Motherland 

From midnight on June 30 to the early morning of July 1, 1997, the handover ceremony of Hong Kong from the British government to the Chinese government was held in Hong Kong. The return of Hong Kong marked the beginning of the formal implementation of China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy, an innovative practice in national governance.  

1998: Streamlining Government Institutions

In 1998, to promote the development of the socialist market economy, the Chinese government launched the fourth institutional reform since the reform and opening up, aiming to establish a government administration system with high efficiency, coordinated operation and standardized performance. Leaner and more efficient government institutions and administrative systems provided new impetus for economic and social reforms in various fields.

1999: Western Development Strategy 

Since the beginning of reform and opening up, the economic gap between eastern and western parts of China became increasingly glaring, so in 1999, China launched the Western Development Strategy and continuously strengthened support of the western region by providing planning instructions, preferential policies, investment, projects and personnel exchange, which effectively promoted the development of the western region and narrowed the regional development gap.  


1999: Birth of Alibaba

Photo courtesy of Alibaba.

In September 1999, Jack Ma founded Alibaba with 18 partners at his apartment in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. By seizing the opportunity of internet development, they set up Taobao and other third-party sales platforms, which drastically changed China’s internet economy.   

2001: China Joins WTO 

Photo by Gong Wenbao.

On September 13, 2001, China completed bilateral market access negotiations with 36 of the 138 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). On December 11, China formally became a member of the WTO. Since then, China has remained deeply involved in globalization by promoting openness, competition and economic integration as it has gradually shared the fruits of prosperity and development with Asia and the world.   

2002: Yao Ming 

On June 25, 2002, Chinese basketball player Yao Ming was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets. As a milestone figure of basketball history in China and the development of the NBA in the United States, Yao Ming inspired Chinese fans to engage in the sports culture of other countries. Not only did he stimulate the pride of the Chinese people, but also provided Westerners with a different perspective to understand China, building a bridge for exchange between the East and the West.

2002: South-to-North Water Diversion Project

On December 27, 2002, the inaugural ceremony of the South-to-North Water Division Project was held simultaneously at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and construction sites in Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. The project aims to solve the water shortage in northern China, especially in the Haihe River, Huaihe River and Yellow River basins, which is expected to benefit a population of 438 million. Today, the middle route project and the east route project (Phase I) have been completed and are now diverting water to the north.  

2003: Shenzhou V Manned Spacecraft Launched

The Shenzhou V manned spacecraft was launched at 9 a.m. on October 15, 2003 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The spacecraft lifted astronaut Yang Liwei and a Chinese flag into space. It made China the third country after the former Soviet Union (Russia) and the United States to send a human into space.   

2003: Three Gorges Dam

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam was completed on May 20, 2006. With a total length of 3,335 meters and a height of 185 meters, the dam is considered the world’s largest hydroelectric power project. With an installed capacity of 18.2 million kilowatts and an annual power generation capacity of 84.7 billion kilowatt-hours, which both rank first in the world, it plays an important role in flood control, power generation and shipping development.

2003: Agricultural Tax Abolished 

In 2006, China abolished the agricultural tax which had been collected for 2,000 years, marking the country’s entry into a new period of reform and opening up. The agricultural tax was levied by the state on all units and individuals engaged in agricultural production earning agricultural income. As an important measure of the government to solve the problems related to agriculture, farmers and rural areas, the abolishment of the agricultural tax not only reduced the burden on farmers and increased their rights, but also demonstrated the principle of fairness in modern taxation.  

2007: Chang’e-1 Launched 

On October 24, 2007, China’s first lunar orbiting satellite, Chang’e-1, was successfully launched and put into orbit, which admitted China into the club of the few countries in the world with deep-space exploration capabilities.  

2008: Beijing Olympics 

The Chinese capital of Beijing hosted the 29th Olympic Games from August 8 to 24, 2008. It marked the first time that China hosted an Olympics, showcasing China’s national strength under a global spotlight and presenting a brand new posture to opening up through a window for the rest of the world to better understand the country.

2010: Shanghai World Expo

Themed “Better City, Better Life,” the 2010 World Expo was held in Shanghai from May 1 to October 31, 2010. It was the first comprehensive world expo held in China and the first registered world exposition held in a developing country. Exhibitors from 246 countries and international organizations participated, drawing unprecedented attendance of more than 70 million visits to the World Expo.

2011: Chinese Nationals Evacuated from Libya

In February 2011, China retrieved 35,860 nationals and 2,100 citizens from 12 other countries from Libya, after it tumbled into domestic political chaos. The 12-day retrieval, the largest of its kind performed by China since 1949, was a model case for the country to protect its nationals overseas, testifying to its growing military, economic and diplomatic strength.  

2012: 18th CPC National Congress 

The 18th CPC National Congress was held in November 2012 as the world was undergoing major development, transformation and adjustment. The Congress added the Scientific Outlook on Development to the Party Constitution, set a course to unwaveringly walk the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and designed the goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. The Congress elected the new Chinese leadership with Xi Jinping at the core, lifting Chinese people to a new historical point to pursue national rejuvenation, world peace and common development.

2013: China Proposes the Belt and Road Initiative 


Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the proposals to build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road in September and October 2013, respectively, which together became known as the Belt and Road Initiative. The Initiative aims to promote coordination of developing strategies along the Belt and Road routes, unleash market potential in the region, facilitate investment and consumption, boost demand and employment, and strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges. The Initiative helps enhance mutual understanding and trust and share peace and prosperity. 

2013: Targeted Poverty Alleviation Proposed 

In late 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a remote village in central Hunan Province, where he met only seniors, children and women, as most young men had left to work in cities. During the visit, he proposed the idea of precision poverty relief. More than 68 million people have been lifted out of poverty since then.  

2016: RMB Added to SDR Basket

On October 1, 2016, the Chinese yuan was included in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket, following the U.S. dollar and the Euro. This signaled that the international community acknowledged China’s increasing significance in the international financial market, and would drive domestic financial reforms and opening of capital accounts in China.

2017: 19th CPC National Congress 

The 19th CPC National Congress was held in Beijing from October 18 to 24, 2017. The Congress enshrined Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the Party Constitution, and called for securing a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and striving for the great success of socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new era. The Congress also formulated plans and policies that follow the tides of the times and respond to the wishes of the people. The Congress upheld the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and reviewed the strong vitality of scientific socialism within China’s development and governance achievements. 

2018: First Session of the Thirteenth NPC 

From March 5 to 20, 2018, the First Session of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress (NPC) was held. During the session an amendment to the country’s Constitution was adopted, enshrining Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the Constitution. Xi Jinping was elected Chinese president by a unanimous vote. 

2018: Extended Fuxing Bullet Train 

On July 1, 2018, the extended version of the Fuxing bullet train rolled down the tracks for a trip from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to Beijing South Railway Station. The Fuxing is a world-class bullet train with independent Chinese intellectual property rights. China has become a forerunner around the world in terms of high-speed railway technology. 

2018: China International Import Expo 

Photo by Xu Xun. 

The first China International Import Expo (CIIE) was held from November 5 to 10, 2018 at the National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai. As the world’s first import themed expo at the national level, it welcomed more than 3,600 enterprises including over 200 Fortune Global 500 companies. The CIIE evidenced China’s strong commitment to further opening up. 

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