China’s Reform, The World Bank And Vested Interests

The World Bank’s report on China in 2030 is a political manifesto disguised as an economic blueprint. Even the title, Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society, hits political not economic buttons. Not that the Bank casts it in that light, but it does provides China’s reformers with both strong arguments and influential backing to press ahead with reviving the economic reform. That has slowed to a glacial place now it has hit the hardest rocks of vested interest.

The World Bank gives the document intellectual and international heft. The participation of the State Council’s Development Research Centre, a prestigious government think tank, and with that the involvement of some of the most prominent technocrats who drafted the current five-year plan, lets the report avoid criticism leveled at recent International Monetary Fund recommendations for stepping up economic reform. That was castigated for being being an outside view that didn’t understand the realities of China. That can’t be said of the Bank’s report. It also gives it the implicit imprimatur of Li Keqiang, the man expected to take over from Wen Jiabao as prime minister in the current leadership transition and thus the Politburo member in charge of the economy. He signed off on the current five-year plan. He also told World Bank president Robert Zoellick, in Beijing to present the report, that China has “a long way to go before realizing modernization”.

Li is being realistic about the challenge ahead for China’s reformers. The World Bank report offers them a strategic description of the way forward rather than policy prescription. Its six strategic directions for China’s future are:

  • Completing the transition to a market economy;
  • Accelerating the pace of open innovation;
  • Going “green” to transform environmental stresses into green growth as a driver for development;
  • Expanding opportunities and services such as health, education and access to jobs for all people;
  • Modernizing and strengthening its domestic fiscal system;
  • Seeking mutually beneficial relations with the world by connecting China’s structural reforms to the changing international economy.

They are goals familiar to anyone who has read China’s current-five year plan, even if that couches them in terms that give more prominence to reductions in income inequality, universal social services, greater environmental protection and more energy efficiency. The Bank’s overarching message, though, lays out the unstated sub-text behind the five-year plan: structural reform is needed to promote a market-based economy, redefine the role of government, lessen the power of state enterprises and develop the private sector.

There is no doubt that China’s economy has reached the point in its development at which the dirigiste methods that have delivered 30 years of double digit growth need to change. Growth will inevitably slow in the coming years. All industrializing nations run into the law of large numbers. The exports and fixed asset investment that have driven growth cannot be sustained at that pace. Growing a $6 trillion economy by 10% in a year is a far greater task than growing a $350 billion one that much. That latter number is, best guess, roughly the size China’s economy was in 1981 in nominal terms. That is was 30 years of 10% growth does to $350 billion economy: turn it into $6 trillion one.

It is a remarkable achievement. Yet the arc of China’s development is not that different from the rapid industrialization phase of countries such as South Korea, Japan or even, much earlier, western Europe and the U.S., even if the magnitude of China’s arc is on an unprecedented scale. The country’s well of cheap labor, transferred from farm to factory, is starting to run low. Demographics, too, are working against growth. The value of foreign-developed technologies diminish as they age. Most of all, the economy needs to move up the value chain if it is to clear the barrier at which so many developing economies fall, that point where per capita income reaches at $10,000-12,000 a year. Vault it, and a nation becomes a middle income country on the road to being a rich one. Fail, and the country ends up stuck on a plateau of disappointed expectation.

China needs to do all that is recommended in the World Bank report if it is to clear that so-called middle-income trap, or economic Great Wall. The report doesn’t put it in these exact terms, but its message is that without reforms, growth will slow to the point where there isn’t the momentum to make the leap. This in not about whether there will be a hard or soft landing in the near term, though the Bank warns that responses to short term problems could undermine long-term strategy.

It is the politics that is the quagmire. There are clear implications for the Party in adopting market reforms. No country has done so successfully and remained a one party state. Even Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the closest approximation any democracy outside a city-state has had to one-party government, was eventually put into opposition at the ballot box. There is a difference between political rights and civil liberties, and the Party may find a seam in that distinction in which to work. But it would be a brave Bystander that bets on it.

The Bank does not push an overtly political agenda of what elsewhere in the world would be seen as neoliberal reforms. It hopes instead to push on an open door, offering practical steps to further an agenda China’s economic policymakers, if not all its leaders, have frequently endorsed. It does, though, call for the government “to redefine its role to focus more on systems, rules and laws” and for “redefining the roles of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and breaking up monopolies in certain industries, diversifying ownership, lowering entry barriers to private firms, and easing access to finance for small and medium enterprises.” Those are all overtly political acts. The Bank recognizes the extent of the political opposition from vested interests to its proposed reforms. Even getting to this point with its report has been a political to and fro. The text is still a “conference edition”, i.e. subject to further revision, for which read political to and fro. State media’s reports on the report are low key (you’ll have to read to the final paragraph to find mention on it).

Reining in the power of the SOEs provides a particular challenge to the reformers. SOEs, like the military, are a source of power, money and influence for the princelings, the descendants of Mao’s original revolutionary leaders, an elite collective dynasty of some 400 families who hold extensive sway over the Party, army and the economy. Xi Jinping, the assumed successor to Hu Jintao as president, is one of their number. The princelings are neither a monolithic block nor are all opposed to reform. But modernizing the governance of the PLA to make China’s military internationally competitive is an easier sell for the reformers, and a creates more winners among the incumbents, than modernizing the state-owned enterprises and banks to the same end.

Yet without removing the structural distortions that the increasing sway of the of SOEs and banks hold over the economy, the sustainability of China’s growth remains in doubt. The double challenge is that the side effects of the twin forces of untrammeled infrastructure investment driven by SEOs and local governments that are little more than property developers–high energy consumption, inefficient capital allocation, unfettered real estate development and environmental degradation–also put economic growth at risk and threaten greater social unrest and thus the Party’s political legitimacy. Breaking the vested interests will be extremely hard for the reformers. Where they are not corrupt, they are systemic. Or both. That is one reason that reform has slowed to the extent it has.

Development of the private sector, giving more freedom to businesses to be innovative, changing the deeply rooted attitude of officials at the lower levels of the Party and government that quantity of economic growth matters more than quality of growth, more transparency to local government finances and governance, are all big changes from the way officials have done things for 30 years, 30 years that from inside China look immensely successful. China’s resilience to the post-2008 global financial crisis, and the authorities response to it, has, if anything, only further set back the case for structural reform.

That changes that China needs to rebalance its economy and go to the next phase of development go the nub of the nexus of government, Party and state, don’t make them any less necessary. How the new leadership handles it will be the measure of its success as custodian of the Party, state and government for the next ten years. The Bank is being politically adroit in casting its timetable for reform to well into the leadership term of those now about to assume the reins of power. Yet how, and whether, President Xi resolves the inevitable factional infighting between the inevitable winners and losers from reform, will determine the cast of his successors long before then.

If there is one thing a state-planned economy should be good at it is producing plans. Beijing has so many accomplished technocrats, and especially among its economic policymakers, that producing really good blueprints for change isn’t a problem for it. Implementing them is the challenge. For all the World Bank’s backing, an institution that may well be led by a Chinese before 2030, these are going to need strong domestic political leadership to be brought to fruition. That means the emergence of a modern-day Deng Xiaoping figure, singly or collectively, or, what no one wants, wrenching crisis. Otherwise China’s economy will stall, and wrenching crisis of another kind ensue. China will then look very different in 2030 from what anyone now is planning for.

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4 Comments

Filed under Economy, Politics & Society

4 responses to “China’s Reform, The World Bank And Vested Interests

  1. just a word: thought I saw a typo in the sentence: “a prestigious government think thank…”

  2. Pingback: A Key Question For China’s Financial Reform: How Small Is A Large Role For SOEs? | China Bystander

  3. Pingback: Ten Questions About November’s Third Party Plenum | China Bystander

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