In the ensuing three decades, the Chinese economy has tripled in size -- and then tripled again. The World Bank says that in 1981, 65 percent of Chinese were poor. Today the figure is 4 percent.
In less than 30 years, China's economic miracle has raised half a billion people -- one out of every 10 people on the planet -- out of poverty. Nothing in human history comes close to that achievement.
This year, like every other country, China is feeling the effects of the global recession. So its economy will probably expand by only 6 or 7 percent this year -- which would represent eye-popping growth almost anywhere else.
Economic progress, of course, has side effects, and lately those have gotten China plenty of attention -- for producing clouds of greenhouse-gas emissions, putting pressure on oil supplies, exporting like mad and becoming the U.S. government's biggest creditor. China as an economic powerhouse gives some Westerners nightmares.
But next to mass chaos, poverty and famine, those problems look pretty manageable, if not mythical. And it would be the height of perversity to conclude that the rest of the world suffers because 1.3 billion Chinese are now free to make constructive use of their energy and talent.
Not all of them have seen the benefits of that opportunity. But it is safe to bet that few of them would trade the economic experiment going on today for the harebrained exercises that preceded it.
Over the last few decades, China has demonstrated definitively how to generate either want or wealth. Zhang Min, a senior official of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, worked Pudong's rice fields as a boy and marvels at what it has become.
What accounts for the change, I ask. He recalls what was said by a Chinese leader: "Same earth. Same sky. Same people. Different policy."