China Plans to Reduce the State’s Role in the Economy? Prime minister Li Keqiang’s speech to party cadres contains some of the boldest pro-market rhetoric they have heard in more than a decade

May 24, 2013

China Plans to Reduce the State’s Role in the Economy


SHANGHAI — The Chinese government is planning for private businesses and market forces to play a larger role in its economy, in a major policy shift intended to improve living conditions for the middle class and to make China an even stronger competitor on the global stage.

In a speech to party cadres containing some of the boldest pro-market rhetoric they have heard in more than a decade, the country’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, said this month that the central government would reduce the state’s role in economic matters in the hope of unleashing the creative energies of a nation with the world’s second-largest economy after that of the United States.On Friday, the Chinese government issued a set of policy proposals that seemed to show that Mr. Li and other leaders were serious about reducing government intervention in the marketplace and giving competition among private businesses a bigger role in investment decisions and setting prices. Whether Beijing can restructure an economy that is thoroughly addicted to state credit and government directives is unclear. But analysts see such announcements as the strongest signs yet that top policy makers are serious about revamping the nation’s growth model.

“This is radical stuff, really,” said Stephen Green, an economist at the British bank Standard Chartered and an expert on the Chinese economy. “People have talked about this for a long time, but now we’re getting a clearly spoken reform agenda from the top.”

China’s leaders are under greater pressure to change as growth slows and the limitations of its state-led, investment-driven economy are becoming more evident. This month, manufacturing activity contracted for the first time in seven months, according to an independent survey by HSBC. Economists are lowering their growth forecasts and weighing the risks associated with high levels of corporate and government debt that have built up over the last five years.

“There are quite a number of messages coming from these new leaders,” said Huang Yiping, chief economist for emerging Asia at the British bank Barclays. “They realize that if we continue to delay reforms, the economy could be in deep trouble.”

The broad proposals include expanding a tax on natural resources, taking gradual steps to allow market forces to determine bank interest rates and developing policies to “promote the effective entry of private capital into finance, energy, railways, telecommunications and other spheres,” according to a directive issued on the government’s Web site. “All of society is ardently awaiting new breakthroughs in reform,” the directive said.

Foreign investors will be given more opportunities to invest in finance, logistics, health care and other sectors. For years, Western governments, banks and companies have complained that the China government has impeded foreign investment in banking and other service industries, despite promising to open up. The latest directive, however, did not give details about the specific changes to foreign investment rules that policy makers in Beijing have in mind.

China’s leaders are also promising to loosen foreign exchange controls, changes that are likely to reduce price distortions in the economy and allow the market to determine the value of the Chinese currency, the renminbi. On Friday, the central bank, the People’s Bank of China, issued a statement that repeated such vows.

The push does not signal the end of big government in China. The Communist Party, experts say, is unlikely to abandon the state capitalist model, break up huge, state-run oligopolies or privatize major sectors of the economy that the party considers strategic, like banking, energy and telecommunications.

Beijing seems to be pressing ahead because it has few alternatives. The economy has slowed this year because of fewer exports to Europe and the United States and slower investment growth. Rising labor costs and a strengthening currency have also reduced manufacturing competitiveness.

China’s leaders, including a group of pro-market bureaucrats who seem to have gained in the leadership shuffle this year, seem to think that more government spending could worsen economic conditions and that the private sector needs to step in.

China is also facing significant changes in its demographics and drivers of economic growth. The population is rapidly aging, and the number of young people entering the work force has begun to decline. Those shifts are forcing China to upgrade its industrial operations and compete using something other than inexpensive goods and low-cost labor, analysts say.

Nicholas R. Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an authority on the Chinese economy, said government controls on interest rates, the exchange rate and the price of energy had resulted in a huge misallocation of capital and unbalanced growth. “These reforms would raise household income and reduce savings, providing a double-barreled boost to private consumption,” Mr. Lardy said.

To succeed, China’s leaders will have to fend off powerful interest groups, as well as corrupt officials who have grown accustomed to using their political power to enrich themselves and their families through bribes and secret stakes in companies.

The previous administration, led by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, also promised to deepen economic overhauls and strengthen the private sector. But analysts say they lacked the political clout needed to succeed. During their two five-year terms, the state’s role in the economy actually expanded.

The new leaders, who took office in March after a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, seem more determined to change course. In his speech this month, delivered to party officials nationwide by teleconference, Mr. Li, the prime minister, said, “If we place excessive reliance on government steering and policy leverage to stimulate growth, that will be difficult to sustain and could even produce new problems and risks.”

“The market is the creator of social wealth and the wellspring of self-sustaining economic development,” he said.

He spoke of deregulation and slimming down the role of government.

“Li Keqiang thinks like an economist,” said Barry J. Naughton, a professor of Chinese economy at the University of California, San Diego. “He wants the government to get out of the way.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: