The much anticipated Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress closed its four-day session last Tuesday. A relatively bland initial communiqué was followed today by a detailed decision document spelling out major initiatives including a relaxation of the one-child policy, the elimination of the repressive “re-education through labor” camps, and a host of reforms to the taxation and state-owned enterprise systems. Today’s blizzard of specific reform pledges allays earlier concerns that the new government led by party chief Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang would fail to set major policy goals. But is this enough to answer the three biggest questions analysts have had since Xi and Li ascended a year ago?
Those questions are, first, do Xi and his six colleagues on the Politburo standing committee have an accurate diagnosis of China’s structural economic and social ailments? Second, do they have sensible plans for addressing these problems? And third, do they have the political muscle to push reforms past entrenched resistance by big state owned enterprises (SOEs), tycoons, local government officials and other interest groups whose comfortable positions would be threatened by change? Until today, the consensus answers to the first two questions were “we’re not really sure,” and to the third, “quite possibly not.”
These concerns are misplaced. It is clear that the full 60-point “Decision on Several Major Questions About Deepening Reform” encompasses an ambitious agenda to restructure the roles of the government and the market. Combined with other actions from Xi’s first year in office – notably a surprisingly bold anti-corruption campaign – the reform program reveals Xi Jinping as a leader far more powerful and visionary than his predecessor Hu Jintao. He aims to redefine the basic functions of market and government, and in so doing establish himself as China’s most significant leader since Deng Xiaoping. Moreover, he is moving swiftly to establish the bureaucratic machinery that will enable him to overcome resistance and achieve his aims. It remains to be seen whether Xi can deliver on these grand ambitions, and whether his prescription will really prove the cure for China’s mounting social and economic ills. But one thing is for sure: Xi cannot be faulted for thinking too small.
Main objective: get the government out of resource allocation
The four main sources we have so far on Xi’s reform strategy are the Plenum’s Decision, the summary communiqué issued right after the plenum’s close, an explanatory note on the decision by Xi, and a presumably authoritative interview with the vice office director of the Party’s Financial Leading Small Group, Yang Weimin, published in the People’s Daily on November 15, which adds much useful interpretive detail. Together they make clear that the crucial parts of the Decision are as follows:
- China is still at a stage where economic development is the main objective.
- The core principle of economic reform is the “decisive” (决定性) role of market forces in allocating resources (previous Party decisions gave the market a “basic” (基础）role in resource allocation.
- By implication, the government must retreat from its current powerful role in allocating resources. Instead, it will be redirected to five basic functions: macroeconomic management, market regulation, public service delivery, supervision of society (社会管理), and environmental protection.
In his interview, Yang Weimin draws a direct comparison between this agenda and the sweeping market reforms that emerged after Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992, claiming that the current reform design is a leap forward comparable to Deng’s, and far more significant than the reform programs of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
This a very bold and possibly exaggerated claim. But the basic reform idea – giving the market a “decisive” role in resource allocation – is potentially very significant, and should not be dismissed as mere semantics. Over the last 20 years China has deregulated most of its product markets, and the competition in these markets has generated enormous economic gains. But the allocation of key inputs – notably capital, energy, and land – has not been fully deregulated, and government at all levels has kept a gigantic role in deciding who should get those inputs and at what price. The result is that too many of these inputs have gone to well-connected state-owned actors at too low a price. The well-known distortions of China’s economy – excessive reliance on infrastructure spending, and wasteful investment in excessive industrial capacity – stem largely from the distortions in input prices.
Xi’s program essentially calls for the government to retreat from its role in allocating these basic resources. If achieved, this would be a big deal: it would substantially boost economic efficiency, but at the cost of depriving the central government of an important tool of macro-economic management, and local governments of treasured channels of patronage. As a counterpart to this retreat from direct market interference, the Decision spells out the positive roles of government that must be strengthened: macro management and regulation, public service delivery, management of social stability, and environmental protection. In short, the vision seems to be to move China much further toward an economy where the government plays a regulatory, rather than a directly interventionist role.
Keep the SOEs, but make them more efficient
Before we get too excited about a “neo-liberal” Xi administration, though, it’s necessary to take account of the massive state-owned enterprise (SOE) complex. While Xi proposes that the government retreat from its role in manipulating the prices of key inputs, it is quite clear that the government’s large role as the direct owner of key economic assets will remain. While the Decision contains a number of specific SOE reform proposals (such as raising their dividend payout ratio from the current 10-15% to 30%, and an encouragement of private participation in state-sector investment projects), it retains a commitment to a very large SOE role in economic development. The apparent lack of a more aggressive state-sector reform or privatization program has distressed many economists, who agree that China’s declining productivity growth and exploding debt are both substantially due to the bloated SOEs, which gobble up a disproportionate share of bank credit and other resources but deliver ever lower returns on investment.
The communiqué and the Decision both make clear that state ownership must still play a “leading role” in the economy, and it is a very safe bet that when he retires in 2022, Xi will leave behind the world’s biggest collection of state-owned enterprises. But while privatization is off the table, subjecting SOEs to much more intense competition and tighter regulation appears to be a big part of Xi’s agenda. In his interview, Yang Weimin stresses that the Plenum decision recognizes the equal importance of both state and non-state ownership – a shift from previous formulations which always gave primacy to the state sector. Moreover, other reports suggest that the mandate of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (Sasac), which oversees the 100 or so big centrally-controlled SOE groups, will shift from managing state assets to managing state capital. This shift of emphasis is significant: in recent years SOEs have fortified their baronies by building up huge mountains of assets, with little regard to the financial return on those assets (which appears to be deteriorating rapidly). Forcing SOEs to pay attention to their capital rather than their assets implies a much stronger emphasis on efficiency.
This approach is consistent with a long and generally successful tradition in China’s gradual march away from a planned economy. The key insight of economic reformers including Xi is that the bedrock of a successful modern economy is not private ownership, as many Western free-market economists believe, but effective competition. If the competitive environment for private enterprises is improved – by increasing their access to capital, land and energy, and by eliminating regulatory and local-protectionist barriers to investment – marginal SOEs
must either improve their efficiency or disappear (often by absorption into a larger, more profitable SOE, rather than through outright bankruptcy). As a result, over time the economic role of SOEs is eroded and overall economic efficiency improves, without the need to fight epic and costly political battles over privatization.
Can Xi deliver?
Even if we accept this view of Xi as an ambitious, efficiency-minded economic reformer, it’s fair to be skeptical that he can deliver on his grand design. These reforms are certain to be opposed by powerful forces: SOEs, local governments, tycoons, and other beneficiaries of the old system. All these interest groups are far more powerful than in the late 1990s, when Zhu Rongji launched his dramatic reforms to the state enterprise system. What are the odds that Xi can overcome this resistance?
Actually, better than even. The Plenum approved the formation of two high-level Party bodies: a “leading small group” to coordinate reform, and a State Security Commission to oversee the nation’s pervasive security apparatus. At first glance this seems a classic bureaucratic shuffle – appoint new committees, instead of actually doing something. But in the Chinese context, these bodies are potentially quite significant.
In the last years of the Hu Jintao era, reforms were stymied by two entrenched problems: turf battles between different ministries, and interference by security forces under a powerful and conservative boss, Zhou Yongkang. Neither Hu nor his premier Wen Jiabao was strong enough to ride herd on the squabbling ministers, or to quash the suffocating might of the security faction. By establishing these two high-level groups (presumably led by himself or a close ally), Xi is making clear that he will be the arbiter of all disputes, and that security issues will be taken seriously but not allowed to obstruct crucial economic or governance reforms.
The costs of crossing Xi have also been made clear by a determined anti-corruption campaign which over the last six months has felled a bevy of senior executives at the biggest SOE (China National Petroleum Corporation), the head of the SOE administrative agency, and a mayor of Nanjing infamous for his build-at-all-costs development strategy. Many of the arrested people were closely aligned with Zhou Yongkang. The message is obvious: Xi is large and in charge, and if you get on the wrong side of him or his policies you will not be saved by the patronage of another senior leader or a big state company. Xi’s promptness in dispatching his foes is impressive: both of his predecessors waited until their third full year in office to take out crucial enemies on corruption charges.
In short, there is plenty of evidence that Xi has an ambitious agenda for reforming China’s economic and governance structures, and the will and political craft to achieve many of his aims. His program may not satisfy market fundamentalists, and he certainly offers no hope for those who would like to see China become more democratic. But it is likely to be effective in sustaining the nation’s economic growth, and enabling the Communist Party to keep a comfortable grip on power.
Editor's Note: Arthur Kroeber is the Beijing-based managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, a global macroeconomic research firm, and a non-resident fellow of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center. A different version of this article appears on www.foreignpolicy.com.