China / Cover Story

Legacy of reform

By AN BAIJIE (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-22 06:39

Much like the forays of other aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs starting from scratch, the Nian sunflower seed business began to see the light of day only in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping put forward the policy of reform and opening-up.

Nian Qiang said his family business is indebted to Deng's leadership.

Legacy of reform

In 1963, businessman Nian Qiang's father was caught selling fish on the streets and sentenced to a year's imprisonment for "speculation".

At that time, only State-owned enterprises were allowed to run a business.

Legacy of reform

Visitors in front of a picture of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on Tuesday. [Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Nian Guangjiu was jailed again for selling chestnuts in 1966, at the start of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

But the senior Nian was unfazed. After he was released from prison, the man started selling fried sunflower seeds in 1972 – this time outside working hours to avoid being caught by the police.

Much like the forays of other aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs starting from scratch, the Nian sunflower seed business began to see the light of day only in 1979.

It was a year after the Communist Party of China, led by Deng Xiaoping, put forward the policy of reform and opening-up.

Under the policy, individuals nationwide were encouraged to run businesses and set up private companies. That meant that family enterprises like the Nian's sunflower seed business became legal.

Deng's visionary move fueled the growth of private enterprise and set a milestone for China's market-oriented economy.

These and other achievements of Deng are being remembered and revisited by beneficiaries like the Nian family, amid the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late leader which falls on Friday.

Nian Qiang said his family business is indebted to Deng's leadership.

"It was Deng Xiaoping's policies of reform that allowed our family business to survive," he said.

Chance to thrive

In 1979, Nian Guangjiu registered the "Idiot Sunflower Seeds" brand – after the nickname people gave him because he always handed out bonus amounts of the seeds to his customers.

But the "idiot" became a millionaire a few years later, when his products were snapped up in his hometown of Wuhu city in East China's Anhui province and distributed nationwide.

On Sept 4, 1981, when four local officials, including a vice-mayor and a vice-police chief of Wuhu, visited Nian's family, the businessman became nervous – he was afraid of being arrested for a third time since the policies in the past decades had been fluctuating.

The officials did not make trouble. On the contrary, they praised Nian for his entrepreneurship as well as the good flavor of his products.

"We knew later that Deng Xiaoping had expressed his support toward my father's business before the officials visited our home," Nian Qiang said.

But it was yet not smooth sailing for the business. In late 1983, some officials questioned whether his company should be restricted since the number of his employees had reached more than 100.

Under regulations at that time, a private company could hire at most seven workers, and the employers would be punished for "exploitation" if they had a large headcount.

The local government reported the situation to the central authorities.

At a conference on Dec 22, 1984, Deng made his reply -- Nian should not be punished and the government should convince the public that the reform policy will not changed, according to records highlighted by the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping.

"Once again, we had Deng Xiaoping and his policies to thank," said Nian Qiang, general manager of Idiot Sunflower Seeds Co. Under reform and opening-up, the central authorities increasingly encouraged private businesses like the Nians' in the early 1980s.

On Oct 16, 1982, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce held a fair in Wuhan city, capital of Central China's Hubei province, inviting more than 110 private companies in 13 provinces to exhibit and promote their products at the fair, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency.

Private enterprise under three decades of reform and opening-up have transformed the country.

By the end of 2011, there were a total of 9.677 million private enterprises and 37.56 million individual businesses, which employed three times more people than the State-owned companies, according to official statistics.

Last year, private businesses employed about 63 percent of graduates from occupational schools and 45 percent of university graduates, according to a bluebook released last month (in July 2014) by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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