The document that changed the world

Forty years ago, in 1978, 18 farmers from the village of Xiaogang in China, met at night in secret. They had seen subsistence and famine. Exhausted and emaciated, they lacked the energy to work the collective fields as Party discipline required. A few years earlier they had seen 67 of their 120 population starve to death in the "Great Leap Forward" Now they took matters into their own hands. By flickering lights (none had seen electricity), they came forward in turn to sign a document dividing up the collective farm into individual family plots, whose owners could keep most of the proceeds of their labours.

They knew the dangers, and added a clause to the contract pledging that if any were betrayed and executed, the others would raise their children until aged 18. Following that historic contract, the village produced more food next harvest than it had in the previous 5 years combined. Surrounding villages spotted what happened, and the farmers of Xiaogang were exposed.

Had Mao-Zedong been in power, they would undoubtedly have been exposed and executed for betraying the principles and cornerstone of Socialism. But Mao had died, and Deng Xiaoping, the great pragmatist, was consolidating his power. He held off punishment until their illegal experiment had been studied, and pledged to adopt their innovation across China. Famously Deng had said, “It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice, it's a goodcat.” Xiaogang's practices were good; they caught mice.

China leapt from being a net importer of food into being a net exporter, and the Chinese economic miracle was launched. Its growth rates since have ranged between 7% and 10%. India and other nations followed suit, and the neoliberal hegemony began. Living standards doubled. Life expectancy doubled. Deaths from disease and malnutrition went down to a tiny fraction of what they had been, as did deaths in childbirth and infancy. It has constituted the greatest economic advance the world has ever seen, and the greatest improvement in history in the living standards and life chances for ordinary people.

It began with a piece of parchment secretly signed by trembling hands in the flickering light of 40 years ago, but it has reverberated around the world. Those 18 brave souls who defied authority to try a new way of doing things were the pioneers of a revolution that has transformed the prospects for humankind. We salute them today.