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China Marks 30 Years of Economic Progress

China is marking 30 years since it began economic reforms that have lifted millions out of poverty and made China one of the world's fastest growing nations. But, those advances have not come without a price. Lax environmental protection has also made China one of the most world's polluted countries and a growing income gap now threatens social stability. Daniel Schearf reports for VOA.

China is honoring former leader Deng Xiaoping for engineering the country's rapid economic growth.

Chen Weixiao is from Deng's home province of Sichuan. He says Deng's economic reforms made life better for ordinary Chinese.

"We're eating well and have nice clothes to wear," Weixiao said. "It's a well-off society. Everything is good. I'm very happy."

Chen was a tourist in the southern city, Shenzhen. The city was China's first special economic zone, which offered preferential treatment for foreign investors and exporters wanting to cash in on the country's cheap labor.

China's export-driven economy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but it is also widening the gap between rich and poor.

And it is also taking an increasingly apparent toll on the environment.

Ma Jun runs an organization in Beijing that maps pollution trends across China. He says most polluters simply pay the low fines rather than clean up, and it is ordinary Chinese who suffer.

"And those who live in those areas, the disadvantaged group of people, the farmers, downstream from the cities or downwind from those factories, they become the victims and really paying dearly for this inefficient way or wrong way of development," Jun stated. "And sometimes they pay [with] their lives."

Chinese authorities say they want to move away from heavy-polluting and labor-intensive manufacturing to higher technology production.

But, the global financial crisis has led to lower demand and forced thousands of factories to close, making unemployment a bigger concern.

Despite the growing economic difficulties, Chinese officials say they believe they are on the right path.

Guangdong's vice governor Wan Qingliang says they are doing their best to repair the damage from years of unchecked growth.

"Looking back at the development achievements over the past three decades, I think we are profoundly impressed by the unparalleled correctness of the reform and opening up policy," Qingliang said.

Up until now, leaders in the Chinese government have unanimously pursued a market economy. James McGregor is an analyst and author on China's economic reforms. He says he worries the latest financial crisis could cause Beijing to backtrack.

"The concern is that we've had this incredible meltdown and mess coming out of the U.S.-mortgages and derivatives, etcetera, that I wonder about if they'll lose that consensus at the top," McGregor stated. "They'll be people in the Chinese government that say, 'Look that's not the way to go, look what's happened to America. We have to pull back and go in this direction.'"

While the global financial crisis presents challenges here, China has changed dramatically from the days when Deng launched his economic reforms.