It was 35 years ago next month that China changed forever. And many China experts believe the world's most populous nation may be on the verge of yet another societal earthquake that could begin playing out this weekend.

In December of 1978 a five-day Communist Party conclave with the boring title of "third plenary session of the 11th central committee" changed everything.

Mao Zedong had been dead two years and the need for major change was clear, if China was to reach its potential internationally.

That secret session, which is the norm in China, lasted for about two weeks. Most of the world did not know what went on in it until much later.

Chinese paramilitary policemen stand on duty in central Beijing ahead of the 205-member Central Committee’s third plenum, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.
Chinese paramilitary policemen stand on duty in central Beijing ahead of the 205-member Central Committee's third plenum, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Facing pressure to overhaul a worn-out growth model, China's leaders are promising dramatic changes at a weekend meeting that reform advocates hope will make history by unleashing a new wave of economic transformation. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

But when the dust had settled it placed Deng Xiaoping in charge, a clear signal that China planned on taking its rightful place on the international stage.

It was the crystallizing moment that opened China to foreign trade and investment through the loosening of state controls. That meant commerce, and lots of it, as companies raced for access to China's cheap labor pool and its enormous emerging markets.

It also eventually led to the government trying to address the mass starvation and poverty in the countryside that had occurred as a result of Mao's failed communal economic policies.

Now, on Saturday, another such gathering of leaders is scheduled to begin at a government-owned hotel in Beijing. It, too, will be secret. So what else is new? But many China experts suggest this meeting could be as important as that one 35 years ago.


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None other than President Xi Jinping has hinted at "momentous" change and even suggested that the committee will consider a reform master plan.

Many of the changes are likely to be internal, but China's sheer size and importance to the world ensure that even internal reform can create worldwide ripples, especially in the United States.

Change in China is hardly difficult to comprehend. It has been needed for decades.

China's seemingly endless supply of cheap labor has waned substantially and the state's lavishly funded enterprises -- which are inefficient, at best, and corrupt, at worst -- make competition from the private sector a difficult challenge indeed, which stifles potential growth. Any reforms that would change that dynamic likely would be welcome.

These state-owned enterprises have unfair advantages such as, among others, access to money at cheaper interest rates than the private sector.

It is also clear that China must bridge the chasm that exists between urban and rural. Local governments are increasingly called upon to provide service, but without the financial means to do so and farmers have no clear rights to ownership of property.

Changing any of these circumstances will be difficult, but in our view essential steps in any "momentous" change.