Xi Jinping’s Reform Express Gathers Steam

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After the enthusiasm which greeted the launch of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark reform blueprint at the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013, the mood among observers of China’s economy has gradually soured. A common view is that progress on economic reforms has been slow, bogged down not only by the opposition of vested interests but also by the government’s own distraction with its endless anti-corruption campaign, and by its anxiousness to support short-term growth through easy monetary policy.

This popular take misses the mark in three respects. First, the top priority of Xi’s reform is not about economics; it is to remake China’s system of governance. Successful reform of government and administration, along with more specific market reforms, will, in turn, enable more sustainable economic growth. Second, China’s leaders clearly reject the view that to be serious about structural economic reform, they must accept a sharp cyclical slowdown. Instead, they believe that maintaining relatively rapid growth in the short term will give them more breathing room to push through their complex economic agenda. Finally, a tally of economic reform measures this year shows that progress has in fact been impressively brisk.

Governance, Not Economics, Tops the Agenda

Understanding the primacy of governance reform is essential to grasping the role of the anti-corruption campaign, which has resulted in the investigation or disciplining of over 70,000 officials at all levels of government in virtually every province, and has now spread to senior levels of the People’s Liberation Army. This campaign is often portrayed as a cynical effort by Xi Jinping to consolidate power, eliminate his enemies and curtail the influence of retired senior leaders, notably former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. These motives no doubt play a large role, but the campaign is too far-reaching, and has gone on for too long, for them to be a full explanation.

It is now apparent that the campaign’s central goal is to sharply reduce the system’s tolerance of corruption, which has been quite high since the beginning of economic reforms in the late 1970s. This, in turn, suggests a desire to renegotiate the basic bargain between the central and local governments that has held throughout the reform period. In essence, that bargain tasked local officials with maximizing economic growth, in exchange for which they were tacitly permitted to skim off part of the financial gains from that growth. Central authorities only cracked down when the graft reached grotesque proportions (as with smuggling scandals in Xiamen and other coastal cities in south China in the late 1990s), or when political and policy interests converged in an exemplary prosecution (as in the purge of Shanghai party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2005, which both removed a Politburo rival to Hu Jintao and sent a message to cities to rein in property speculation).

This bargain proved effective in stimulating sustained rapid growth while China was still a low-income country. But the nation’s economy has now matured and with a per capita national income of $6,560, China now qualifies as an upper-middle income country, by the World Bank’s definition. To sustain high growth at this income level, China needs better governance, a more reliable legal system and considerably less corruption. Thus, the anti-graft campaign is not incidental to or a distraction from the main reform agenda—it is an essential part of the foundation of a more successful economic and political system.

Similarly, the legal system reform outlined at the Fourth Plenum in October, while disappointing many Western observers because it sanctified the Communist Party’s position above the laws that apply to everyone else, is in fact a significant step towards a more consistent, predictable, rules-based system. As Cheng Li has pointed out, the very act of devoting a Plenum to legal issues has made possible a discussion about how to create rule of law in China (see “Fourth Plenum Has Opened Discourse on Constitutionalism, Governance”). And the specific reforms that legal scholars believe are likely—creation of circuit courts to limit the influence of parochial interests, more consistent publication of court decisions, prohibition on Party interference in most cases and the creation of limited avenues for public-interest litigation against polluting industries—have the potential to make Chinese governance fairer, more transparent and more responsive to citizens’ concerns. As with the anti-corruption drive, a key theme is to readjust the balance of power in favor of the central government at the expense of the localities.

A final element in the governance reform agenda is the important but often-overlooked fiscal program adopted by the Politburo on June 30. By 2016, China will complete its first major overhaul of the nation’s taxation and government spending system in two decades. Key items include the elimination of land-based local government financing and its replacement by provincial bond issues; restructuring of taxes to reduce local governments’ revenue shortfalls and encourage them to promote consumer services, rather than heavy industry; and stronger resource and environmental taxes to arrest environmental degradation and promote more efficient energy use. Once more, much of the focus is on redefining the core role of local governments: their main mission will shift from promotion of economic growth to effective provision of public services.

Cyclical Economic Management Supports the Reform Agenda

Once we understand the primary role of governance, the sequencing of reform measures becomes more evident, and the relative tardiness of more narrowly economic reforms becomes more understandable. But skeptics have another concern: that the government is losing sight of its long-term structural reform goals in a desperate effort to keep short-term gross domestic product (GDP) growth above seven percent. The premise of this worry is that unless the authorities are willing squeeze out inefficiencies and curb the rapid rise in debt—measures which inevitably require a sharp slowdown in growth—then the structural reforms have little chance of success. In short, the economic model cannot change unless the old, bad habits are punished by clear failure.

Two pieces of recent evidence support this view. First, early in 2014, Beijing relaxed monetary policy and started removing long-standing administrative restrictions on house purchases, in order to prop up a property market that seemed on the brink of collapse. These measures reversed the tight monetary policy of the second half of 2013, which succeeded in bringing credit growth down from 23 percent in April to around 16 percent by the end of the year. Second, the new, looser policy meant that the country’s aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio continued to rise in 2014. After rising from 145 percent of GDP in 2008 to 220 percent in 2013, this ratio continued to climb in 2014 and now exceeds 230 percent of GDP. In absolute terms, this figure is not alarming—most developed countries, including the United States, have significantly higher ratios. But the rapid increase in leverage in a short time is usually a harbinger of financial problems.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that the continued increase in leverage shows that Beijing is incurably addicted to its old debt-fueled growth model, or that the authorities have decided to prioritize growth over reform. First of all, the credit stimulus used to support the property market this year was extremely modest: the year-on-year growth rate of credit ticked up only about one percentage point for a few months, and quickly dropped again once stimulus was withdrawn. The removal of administrative restrictions on house purchases arguably played a larger role in the property stabilization than did easy credit.

More important, Beijing’s approach to deleveraging is a deliberate policy choice driven by the conviction that growth and reform are partners, rather than antagonists. A relevant comparison is the debate between U.S. and European policymakers after 2008 about the appropriate response to the global financial crisis, which left the rich economies stuck with low growth and big debts. Washington argued that policy must focus on sustaining growth (through ultra-easy monetary policy and large fiscal deficits), and that fiscal consolidation should take a back seat. European officials, especially in Germany, argued that fiscal consolidation and debt reduction had to be a top priority, even if it harmed growth. Beijing obviously favors an American-style approach to deleveraging and structural adjustment. Given the superior performance of the U.S. economy (relative to Europe) since the global crisis, this is a defensible choice.

Economic Reforms are Proceeding Smartly

The last point is that, in fact, China’s rollout of specific reform measures over the past year has been impressive. In addition to the fiscal reform package, whose significance has been severely underrated by the market-obsessed international financial media, achievements of 2014 include:

• Abolition of registered capital requirements for new firms, which caused growth in new-company registrations to surge to over 20 percent, the highest rate in a decade.

• Switching the resource tax on coal from a volume to a value basis, a long-delayed measure which should discourage excessive investment and promote energy efficiency.

• Publication of a plan to deregulate all pharmaceutical prices beginning in 2015.

• Publication by virtually all provinces of plans for “mixed-ownership” reform of state enterprises.

• A significant opening of the capital account via the Shanghai-Hong Kong Connect program which permits investors in those two financial hubs to put money directly in each others’ stock markets.

• The publication of draft rules on deposit insurance, paving the way for implementation next year, followed by full liberalization of deposit interest rates.

Clearly these are just initial steps and much work needs to be done to broaden these reforms in ways that will have material impact on China’s $8 trillion economy. But it is hard to think of another major world leader whose government has accomplished so much in such a short period of time. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, came to office two years ago promising “three arrows” of monetary easing, expansive fiscal policy and deep structural reform. So far he has delivered only one—monetary easing, which has driven the yen down and the stock market up—but structural reform is missing in action and fiscal policy was disastrously captured by Ministry of Finance hawks, whose consumption-tax increase drove the country into a needless recession. The U.S. government is gridlocked and is still fighting over a health care reform law passed five years ago. Six years after the global crisis, Italy has just begun to put in place long-overdue reforms to its labor market, and France, under its last two presidents, has done nothing at all to address its structural economic malaise. Xi Jinping can certainly be criticized on many issues, but failure to deliver on his reform agenda is not one of them.