LOOKING BACK OVER the last 50 years or so of Chinese history, it is quite striking that, since the late 1970s, Chinese policy has been very consistent, with the leadership focusing on economic development as its top priority. This is quite different from the time of Mao Zedong, when politics was supreme.
Even while Mao was alive, moderates within the leadership, in particular then premier Zhou Enlai, sought to focus on development. In early 1975, Zhou raised the banner of the 'four modernisations' - of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defence. However, radicals within the leadership insisted that it was better for the country to be poor but ideologically pure than to turn revisionist.
It was not until the death of Mao in 1976, followed by the overthrow of the Gang of Four and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping, that the communist party decided to jettison class struggle in favour of economic development.
In 1979, Deng, then China's undisputed leader, set as the country's goal the achievement of a relatively modest standard of living by the end of the 20th century, a state that he called xiaokang, using an ancient Chinese term. To achieve this goal, he called for the doubling of the country's gross domestic product in a decade, from 1980 to 1990, and then a redoubling in the last 10 years of the 20th century.
Deng also set a more distant goal. By the middle of the 21st century, he said, China should have achieved the status of a modern country, not a superpower, but one comparable in standard of living with the world's developed nations.
Last Friday, President Jiang Zemin, in his opening address to the 16th party congress, provided additional details of China's plans for achieving economic modernisation by the middle of this century.
Having successfully quadrupled the country's GDP in the last two decades of the 20th century, Mr Jiang set as China's next goal the quadrupling again of its GDP in the first two decades of the new century.
If successful, this would mean China's GDP will exceed 35 trillion yuan (HK$32.9 trillion) by 2020, in 2000 prices. It also assumes a growth rate of more than seven per cent for the 20-year period.
Mr Jiang, in his speech, presented a vision of China in 2020 as not just a wealthier country. 'We will further develop the economy, improve democracy, advance science and education, enrich culture, foster social harmony and upgrade the texture of life for the people,' he said.
'Building on what we have achieved at this stage and continuing to work for several more decades, we will have in the main accomplished the modernisation programme and turned China into a strong, prosperous, democratic and culturally advanced socialist country by the middle of this century.'
Demonised as exploiters
As to how this goal is to be achieved, China's leaders make it quite clear that they intend private entrepreneurs to play a major role. In his speech, Mr Jiang said that 'builders of socialism' would include not just workers and farmers, but private business people as well.
Entrepreneurs, or capitalists, were demonised as exploiters under Mao. Deng pragmatically shelved discussion of the issue, and now, under Mr Jiang, entrepreneurs are being given a clear political status within the party.
And while previously, the slogan 'to get rich is glorious' applied only to earned wealth, now Mr Jiang says that 'all legitimate income, from work or not, should be protected'.
It is quite impressive to see the Chinese government and the communist party continue to adhere unswervingly to the goal of modernisation of the country, from Deng through Mr Jiang and now, to a new, younger leadership.
In the late 1970s, the stated goal was for China to become a 'powerful, modern socialist' country.
The goal has now been refined and broadened. The emphasis now goes beyond that of a powerful state to a prosperous people who, at the same time, also enjoy democracy and an advanced culture.
Even though at present there are few signs of China moving towards democracy, at least the leadership now routinely defines democracy as one of the goals to be achieved simultaneously with modernisation. That is to say, by the middle of the century, China will be not only much more prosperous than it is today, it should also be much more democratic than it is today.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator