The last 30 years are a blip in 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation, but momentous to the world at large. Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders that set the mainland on a course of economic reform and opening up. This has transformed the country into one of the world's great powers. In his speech celebrating the occasion in the Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao pledged to continue market reforms and opening up. There can be no turning back without imperiling economic expansion and hurting people's expectations. The third plenum of the 11th party congress 30 years ago, at which Deng Xiaoping took power and launched the reforms, came at a critical moment in China's history. The country stood on the verge of economic collapse after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. That meeting, as Mr Hu said, sparked a great awakening of the Chinese nation. Deng loosened the grip of ideology and party control on markets. The government welcomed foreign investment. Described as 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', economically the reform has become more like capitalism with Chinese characteristics. The party still rules, but over an economy with stock markets, recognition of private ownership, and few price controls outside of key sectors. Hundreds of millions have emerged from poverty. China has established a development model for other emerging countries to follow. Rising expectations Yet, as with many achievements, this has also spawned new problems. A generation of Chinese has grown up not knowing the hardship which existed before the economic reforms. An increasing number have enjoyed the benefits of a better education, overseas study and more opportunities. But the party now faces the challenge of meeting people's rising expectations. Significantly, Mr Hu warned the party against complacency or taking its right to rule for granted. It was a subtle reminder that the party could lose its grip on power if it failed to satisfy these expectations. Meanwhile, as China becomes more powerful, the nation is assuming its rightful place on the world stage. As an equal partner in international affairs with other influential nations, its actions and policies are coming under closer scrutiny. Greater engagement with the international community has thrown up some complex problems. Examples are aid-and-trade deals with resource rich countries that do not have good human rights records, leading to a perception that China disregards rights and is the new colonialist. With other big players on the international stage sensitive to any suggestion that China is throwing its weight around, the nation has to learn how to handle this type of situation. Now, once again, the nation finds itself at a critical juncture. In the short term, the global economic crisis has hit its export-led economy much harder and faster than officials anticipated, with things likely to get worse before they get better. Over the long term, a more worrying concern is whether China will continue to grow or stagnate at its current level as some Latin American countries have. In his speech, Mr Hu cast his eyes to 2049 - 100 years after the founding of the People's Republic of China - by which time the nation should have become a modern, democratic and harmonious socialist country. But will the unique development model pioneered by the Communist Party - rigid one-party rule that allows little political dissent and maintains firm control of key sectors of a market economy - continue to deliver growth as well as satisfy the aspirations of the Chinese people? The answer remains uncertain. Political reforms What we do know is that despite the successes of 30 years of reform, simmering social problems have also burst into the open, as the income gap continues to widen and pollution worsens by the day. Over the past year, while the country basked in the glory of hosting the Beijing Olympics, its inadequacies were also shown up by a snowstorm that paralysed transport infrastructure at Lunar New Year, the uprising against Beijing's rule in Tibet and the Sichuan earthquake. After Mr Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2003, they set social harmony, stability and putting people first as priorities - themes that Mr Hu reiterated in his speech. But it is difficult to see how these worthy goals can be accomplished without launching political reforms that would allow the people to have a bigger say in how the country is run and anchor economic growth on a sustainable platform. Thirty years ago, it took great courage for Deng and his contemporaries to reverse Mao Zedong's policies and embrace reform and opening up. Looking ahead to the next 30 years and beyond, the government will have no alternative to reforms, including a freer media, an independent judiciary and allowing people to express different opinions. That will take no less vision and courage from new generations of leaders tasked with the onerous responsibility of running the world's most populous country.