'Opening up' China's vocabulary
By John Ng

HONG KONG - Officially, Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of China's path to "reform and opening up". On December 18, 1978, the 3rd plenary session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party started a five-day plenary session to endorse Deng Xiaoping's policy proposal to depart from socialism, implement economic reforms and open up the country.

Economic reform and opening up in the past three decades have brought fundamental changes not only to China's economy but to many aspects of Chinese society as well. Reflecting such changes, a great number of new phrases have been formed in the Chinese language.

As one of the activities to mark the anniversary, 15 popular Chinese-language newspapers (such as the Beijing Evening News, the Shanghai Evening Post, the Tianjin-based Jin Wan Bao, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News) and Internet portals (such as Sina.com) have conducted a poll to select, through voting by readers and Internet surfers, the top 10 popular phrases formed in the past three decades. Results of the poll, which started in October, were publicized recently.

These phrases vividly depict the new things experienced by Chinese people as well as the new concepts that have become the most influential in the country. In a sense, these new phrases epitomize the fundamental changes in Chinese economy, society and ideology in the past 30 years.

These are the top 10 new Chinese phrases, according to their popularity in descending order.

Xiahai (Jumping into the sea), or going to do business
In the early years, a major aim of economic reform and opening up was to break the socialist command economy. For the first time since 1949, Chinese people were allowed to set up and run their own businesses. Thus the 1980s witnessed the mushrooming of small privately-run businesses, at first started by jobless urban dwellers. But then the zeal to chase after money spread to party and government officials, with employees from state-owned enterprises and institutions rushing to quit their jobs to do commercial businesses. So much so that the 1980s was also known as the age of "all people running businesses".

The commercial market was compared to the vast sea in which one had to swim or sink. As such, the phenomenon of people giving up their "iron rice bowl" jobs to start their own businesses was described as xiahai or "jumping into the [commercial] sea".

Xiahai was also epoch-making in the sense that it was the first time since 1949 that urban people could freely decide on what they would do for a living. Before then, they had to do whatever jobs the government assigned to them.

Xiagang zaijiuye, or to be laid off and find re-employment
China began to restructure its state-owned enterprises in the 1990s, which inevitably led to the massive layoff of workers, as the restructuring was aimed at improving the efficiency and profitability of the state sector through mergers, bankruptcy and the layoff of redundant employees.

No official statistics show how many workers were laid off during that period, but experts estimate the number could be tens of millions, according to Xinhua News Agency.

In any case, xiagang seemed to become a part of daily urban Chinese life during that period. This was evident by the fact that urban people would often greet each other by saying, "Have you been laid off?" instead of the traditional "Have you eaten?"

To avoid social unrest caused by the massive layoffs, the Chinese government launched a zaijiuye, or re-employment project, across the country to help laid-off workers find new jobs by giving them occupational training, or become self-employed by granting them small loans and preferential tax policies. The massive layoffs also prompted the Chinese government to start building a nationwide social security network.

Nongmingong, or rural migrant workers
China's reform and opening up began in the countryside with the privatization of agricultural production. This improved productivity and thus freed millions of farmers from farming in the fields.

Part of the surplus rural labor was soon to be absorbed by village or township-run enterprises. And then in 1984, Beijing changed its policy to allow rural laborers to find jobs in cities to help ease the growing shortage of cheap labor. But the massive migration of rural workers did not start until the early 1990s when foreign direct investment began to pour into the country, creating many construction, manufacturing and mining jobs, most of which urban dwellers found too tiring or dirty.

The number of rural migrant workers grew from 60 million in 1992 to 120 million in 2003 and 210 million this year, according to government statistics. Rural migrant workers have contributed 21% of China's gross domestic product (GDP) in the past 30 years, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

However, because of the rigid hukou, or residency registration system, rural migrant workers - though many of them have been living and working in cities for decades - and their city-born children are still considered rural residents and cannot enjoy the same rights and benefits enjoyed by city residents. Thus nongmingong also stands as a serious social problem to be tackled.

"A cat that catches mice is a good one, be it black or white."
This famous motto of Deng Xiaoping represents the pragmatism the late paramount leader adopted in advancing reform and opening up. On different occasions, Deng used it to stop debates over whether the economic reform was capitalist or socialist.

In a sense, what China has achieved in the past three decades is the victory of pragmatism, which has already become a dominant ideological belief in China, as the popularity of this motto suggests.

Shangwang, or surfing the Internet
When the Internet was introduced in China in the mid-1990s, it quickly gained popularity and heavily impacted society.

By the end of June of this year, the number of Internet users in China reached 221 million, surpassing that of the United States, according to the Data Center of China Internet (DCCI). China's netizen population is expected to reach 263 million by the end of this year, according to the DCCI.

E-commerce transactions amounted to 2 trillion yuan (about US$300 billion) in 2007 and 25% of netizens said they had bought something online.

While online games, music, e-mail and instant communication services greatly entertain Chinese surfers, the Internet has also become a powerful news medium and a channel for the public to express their views.

Gaige kaifang, or reform and opening up
The great achievement of reform and opening up in the past 30 years is certainly something in which Chinese people can take pride.

In November 1978, 18 villagers from Xiaogang village in the eastern province of Anhui secretly decided to abandon the socialist collective system and divide farmland among the households, which was at the time against Chinese law and could be subject to heavy penalties.

But Deng hailed the move as "a great invention of Chinese farmers". And he saw this as a good way to reform the socialist system, so soon the "household responsibility system" was widely promoted across the country and triggered economic reform.

Over the past 30 years, the country witnessed significant changes in comprehensive national strength, people's living standards and international influence thanks to the reform and opening up policy.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China's per capita income jumped to US$2,360 in 2007 from US$190 in 1978. Fast economic growth over the past 30 years lifted China's GDP ranking in the world from 10th in 1978 to fourth in 2007 after the United States, Japan and Germany.

Beijing aoyun, or the Beijing Olympic Games
Chinese people generally have taken great pride in Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in August, as it made their "dream in a 100 years" come true.

Despite brief interruptions of the torch relay by Tibetan activists in some foreign cities, the Olympics were a success as China's coming-of-age show on the international stage. Chinese athletes won a total of 100 medals - a coincidence fitting in well with the country's "dream in 100 years" to host the international sports event. And with 51 gold medals, China overtook the United States to rank No 1 for the first time.

Chaogu, or speculation in stocks
The stock market used to be seen as the core of "evil" capitalism. But in 1990, China opened its first stock exchange in Shanghai and in the following year its second bourse was set up in Shenzhen. There are now nearly 80 million individual investor accounts with these two bourses. Thus the ups and downs of the stock market touch the nerves of nearly all urban families in the country.

The year 2007 saw a bullish stock market, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index soaring from 2,728 points in January to 5,261 points, or 92.85%, on December 28. Taking a downturn since the beginning of this year, however, the index closed at 1,975. Small investors now are looking to the government to rescue them.

Zhongguo tese , or Chinese characteristics
To silence ideological criticisms against his reform and opening up aimed at turning a command economy into a free-wheeling market economy, Deng had to uphold the banner of socialism. So when challenged, he proclaimed the reform and opening up was aimed at building "socialism with Chinese characteristics".

And when saying this, Deng was also aware that there was no experience in any other country for China to copy in its reform and opening-up drive, so the country had to probe its own way.

Hence, if something in China cannot be explained by existing theories, either classic Marxism or capitalism (and indeed there are many such things today in the country), it can be referred to as something "with Chinese characteristics".

The phrase is frequently quoted by Chinese and referred to in party and government documents.

Xiongqi, or rise abruptly
Xiongqi originates from the Sichuan dialect, which literally means "to rise to the challenge", something like "Come on, Come on", "Go! Go!" in Chinese.

The phrase was originally used by Sichuan football fans to inspire teams in the 1990s, and soon became known to people across the country. Later it was used off the sports fields to encourage people to keep up their spirits in difficult times.

After Sichuan was hit by the 8-magnitude earthquake on May 12, "Sichuan, Xiaongqi!" became a popular slogan for Chinese people to demonstrate their support and encouragement for the quake-affected areas and victims. Thus xiongqi has now become a popular phrase in the Chinese language.

John Ng is a journalist based in Hong Kong.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)