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Xiang Nan: Champion of Reform in Fujian

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Born in Fujian in 1918, Xiang Nan was a major force in the province, where he is still remembered for his contributions to reform and opening up.

Fujian was a hard province to lead in the early years of the PRC because of its proximity to Taiwan, which the Communist Party was keen to swiftly liberate. Many of the country’s top cadres were concentrated in the province to prepare for liberation, but when this failed to happen, a large group of senior cadres were left behind. Therefore, anyone who became party secretary of Fujian met with resistance at every turn.

Xiang Nan was resolute in supporting and implementing reform in Fujian. He worked hard to develop the first special economic zone (SEZ) outside Guangdong – Xiamen. His diplomatic skills and leadership talent enabled the reformers to win the day, making Fujian the second most important province after Guangdong in reform and opening up.

Many of his economic beliefs were shaped by his overseas travels, especially to the Soviet Union, Japan and the US. His high regard for the Japanese economy was later denounced and used against him in the Cultural Revolution when he was denounced as a ‘rightist’ and a ‘capitalist roader’. Plunged into years of adversity, Xiang Nan learned to think independently. His years of education through labour in the countryside while exiled from power gave him first-hand experience of life in the countryside which he later put to good use in modernising the farming sector by championing the ‘household contract responsibility system’ to raise agricultural productivity.

He stuck by his beliefs and was fearless in asking difficult questions such as, why was it that, in the capitalist US, science, technology and the economy had developed so rapidly, while the socialist PRC had remained so backward for such a long time? How was America able to feed itself and produce massive agricultural surpluses for export when farmers accounted for only 5% of its population at a time when 80% of China’s population lived in rural areas?

In addressing such questions, policymakers started to implement the reforms that would lead to the transformation of the Chinese economy and the modernisation and mechanisation of agriculture.

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