China and the World Bank2030 vision
Feb 28th 2012, 15:46 by J.M. | BEIJING
CHINA’S economic reforms have seen few breakthroughs in the past few years, or so the analysts tend to think. As the country prepares for big changes due in its top leadership after a Communist Party congress late this year, senior officials are becoming even less inclined than usual to take risks that might damage their careers. And with the economy still growing rapidly, despite the rest of the world’s problems, many of them see no urgent need for change.
The World Bank thinks differently. In a 468-page report, “China 2030”, it has set out a huge range of policy measures it says are needed in order to prevent the country from eventually falling into a “middle-income trap” of much slower growth. Its suggestions range from weakening the grip of state-owned enterprises to letting the market play a bigger role in the setting of interest rates. Such ideas have been aired by others before, but World Bank officials suggest there is a chance their report could help nudge China into action.
It will certainly be widely noted in China. Unlike the bank’s last report of this kind (“China 2020”, published in 1997), this one was co-authored with a government think-tank, the Development Research Centre (DRC) of the State Council. The DRC is an influential organisation which supplies the government with policy advice. The finance ministry was also involved. A deputy prime minister, Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over as prime minister from Wen Jiabao next year, is thought to have played an active role in arranging this co-operation between officialdom and the bank.
Having the DRC’s name on the document gives China’s reformers cover. The World Bank is viewed with suspicion by hardliners, who see it as a meddler in the affairs of developing countries and a purveyor of ideas that could undermine party rule in China. With a semi-official stamp of approval on it, the report will be less easy for conservatives to dismiss as part of a Western plot. In turn, it’s believed, the DRC used the World Bank as cover in its discussions with foot-dragging bureaucrats (“Don’t blame us for these proposals, blame the bank”). At times, behind closed doors, the DRC argued for even bolder reforms than the bank itself was suggesting.
The bank, however, should be prepared for disappointment. In the buildup to the party congress, a bit of reformist posturing is only to be expected. Different factions in the party want to air their agendas in order to influence the policy choices of the new leaders. A hint of this emerged in a commentary in the People’s Daily (in Chinese) on February 23rd. It said some officials wanted to keep things as they were in order to avoid criticism, but that this would eventually result in an even greater crisis. “No matter how thorough plans are, or how intelligently crafted they are, reforms will always be attacked,” it said, giving warning that mere “tinkering” with reform had been the downfall of great nations and parties.
Also on February 23rd, details emerged of a proposal by the People’s Bank of China (long an outlier among Chinese bureaucracies for its reformist hue) for accelerating reform of capital controls with the aim of making the yuan a global reserve currency. The plan was published in the China Securities Journal (in Chinese). But despite the World Bank’s efforts to persuade the Chinese government that reform is relatively easy to manage in good times, prospects for quicker action still look dim, at least in the near term.
China’s new leaders will likely take at least a few months to consolidate their power and settle in before they feel confident enough to tackle economic reforms that affect powerful vested interests, such as the bureaucracy that controls state enterprises or the ministry of commerce. (Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, describes the influence of these groups in a detailed chapter in his new book, “Sustaining China’s Economic Growth After the Global Financial Crisis”). Even then, it is very unlikely that those who take over leadership of the party in a few months’ time will be any stronger than their predecessors when it comes to taking on the conservatives.