FOURTEEN years ago, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping gave a speech that helped trigger an economic revolution in the country. Mr Deng said: ''Poverty is not a characteristic of socialism.'' With these words, he launched a move to take China forward and help to bring its 1.1 billion people towards what he called the ''well-to-do society''. After the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which threw China into chaos and brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy, the leaders found China was isolated from world development. In 1978, the policy of reform and opening up to the outside world was initiated. The Chinese people's living standards were found to be as low as in 1952, when China had rehabilitated its economy after World War II. Now, the economy is growing swiftly, diversifying and gaining confidence. Between 1978 and last year, the per capita Gross National Product (GNP) increased from 375 yuan (about $505) to 1,800 yuan. Reform has brought great changes to Chinese society and improved living standards. In 1978, the State Statistical bulletin said: ''The supply of meat, poultry and eggs is short . . . and cannot meet the increasing demand of the people.'' Most food and even goods, such as bicycles and laundry soap, were rationed. But, last year, distribution coupons were abolished and the per capita output of meat, eggs and food grain was 25.2 kilograms, 7.6 kg and 380 kg respectively - on a par with world levels. Twenty years ago, people expected to have a bicycle, a sewing machine and a wrist watch. The 1980s added colour television sets, refrigerators, washing machines and other home appliances to the list. Now, in the 1990s, it is difficult to forecast the next ''hot spot'' for consumption from video players, hi-fi systems, air-conditioning, cellular phones - and for people of the upper income bracket, cars. Mr Deng said that in the reform ''some part of the people should be allowed to become well-off earlier''. His words are now coming true in China's open coastal areas, including the Special Economic Zones. which enjoy preferential economic policies. Coastal Guangdong province in southern China, for example, reported an average annual Gross Domestic Product growth rate of more than 12 per cent in the past 14 years. The annual income of urban residents there was more than 3,000 yuan, and that of rural inhabitants, 1,000 to 2,000 yuan. People in the Pearl River delta, the economic centre of the province, have higher incomes. The province has been China's leading exporter for seven years in succession. It accounts for more than one fifth of the national export volume.