Marking the 30th anniversary of its reform and open-door policy, 2008 is destined to be a watershed year for China as it prepares for next year's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. The long-held dream of hosting the Olympic Games on Chinese soil was realised, with style and class. And now a spacewalk mission has been successfully completed by three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou VII spacecraft, marking technological progress and symbolising the nation's ascendancy to the status of a world power. The nation's euphoria over the success of the Olympics and the latest venture into space has, however, been dampened by a string of natural and man-made disasters. The deadly earthquake in Sichuan province exposed the helplessness of people in the face of the ruthless power of nature. Meanwhile, the milk-powder scandal has laid bare the damage caused to human lives and society in general by greed and a malfunctioning food safety system. The spate of events could not have come at a more thought-provoking time. Striving to put an end to decades of political turmoil and economic malaise since 1949, Deng Xiaoping was convinced that the key to ending poverty and backwardness, and to pursuing modernisation, was to reform and integrate with the world by opening up. There will be no shortage of data about the breathtaking achievements of the nation on the social and economic fronts in the upcoming celebrations. The domination of 'Made-in-China' products in the marketplace testifies to the role of the nation as the factory of the world. But as more milk-related products suspected of being tainted with melamine are taken off the shelves, the country has suffered a crisis of confidence. Concerns have deepened over the erosion of social mores and the meltdown of the mainland's food safety regime. On Monday, British chocolate maker Cadbury recalled mainland-made products from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia after internal tests on products made at its Beijing plant 'cast doubt' on their safety. In a statement, Cadbury said all its Chinese suppliers had been cleared by the mainland government's testing regime. Last month, in an emotion-laden speech in New York, Premier Wen Jiabao said: 'From the outbreak of Sars, to the ice storm and the enormous earthquake; from mine accidents to the food safety crisis ... these have all left us cause for deep reflection.' He also put on a brave face, stressing that 'distress rejuvenates a nation'. But that will only happen if the authorities, and society in general, can show the leadership and political will to learn from these events. The nation's success in space and failure in food safety could not be more of a contrasting irony. It makes a mockery of the present leadership's avowed goal of putting the interests and welfare of the people above all else. When Beijing announced nationwide mourning for the victims of the earthquake, it was hailed as a step in the right direction of respecting the lives of individuals. The disturbing, conflicting signs of disregard for the importance of food safety are indicative of the enormous difficulties and contradictions facing the nation as it tries to tackle the problems that have arisen in a rapidly changing society. As the leadership and the rest of the nation take stock of the reform drive launched 30 years ago, the milk product scandal has provided food for thought about the goals of progress and development, and the modern and civilised society to which people aspire. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.