Summer Davos laments the loss of reform spirit
Ambivalence hung over the World Economic Forum meeting that was held in Dalian, Liaoning province.
Participants were eager to compare notes but few headed home with clear answers to such questions as how Europe can solve its sovereign debt crisis, how the United States can avoid a double dip and how China can continue to lead global growth.
Known as the summer Davos, the three-day meeting which ended on Friday attracted 1,600 participants - the largest number since it was first held on the mainland five years ago, according to forum media director Fon Mathuros. But there were few heads of state and captains of industry, and even fewer words of confidence for the assembled. If there was any reassuring sign, it was the locals' emphasis on political reform.
Premier Wen Jiabao became the champion of the cause when he included some candid remarks about political reform in his address to the opening session.
As a first step, Wen said, China should uphold the rule of law to advance social justice (primarily economic opportunities), maintain justice, protect people's 'democratic rights' and root out corruption.
Wen said there should be change to the present system, which features an 'overconcentration of unrestricted power'.
Peking University economics professor Zhang Weiying criticised what he called backtracking on reform.
Zhang said that since 2009 and the launch of the government's 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) economic stimulus package, state-owned industries had registered enormous growth at the expense of the economy's long-term health. That stimulus package was presided over by none other than the premier.
An imbalance occurred, Zhang said, as many private entrepreneurs felt insecure or were pushed out of business.
So the high price the mainland has paid for boosting the state sector with so much easy credit has not just been inflation - which has hung above 6 per cent year on year for the last few months - but more importantly, a shoddier system.
He criticised the government bureaucracy for losing 'the spirit of reform' as agencies scrambled to expand their own power and interests.
Zhang proposed that as an important move towards government reform the authorities should bring back the state economic reform commission, a ministry-level agency under the State Council in the 1980s.
He said the commission served as an important rival power to the then State Planning Commission and the Ministry of Finance.
Wang Boming, publisher of Caijing Magazine and one of the pioneers of mainland stock markets in the 1980s and 1990s, also underscored the importance of refocusing efforts on reform. Asked whether a state economic reform commission could be re-established, Wang said: 'Anything is possible.'
Government reform and greater political transparency were also deemed more necessary than ever to protect the quality of services, from social management to food security.
Ge Jianxiong, professor of history at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that if the government could not set an example through its management of society and development, it would be hard for society itself to apply the moral standards and work ethics needed for a modern and sophisticated economic system.
Bi Yujuan, president of the Tianjin Cotton Exchange Market, said that only in an open social and political environment could companies adopt a proper approach to organisation and operations.
Amid the calls for China to embark on further change, there were also those insisting on a shift from the United States and Europe.
Former British prime minister Gordon Brown urged European and US leaders to follow up on Wen's offer for China to do what it could to contribute to restoring global economic stability.
Renewing a call for a global pact on growth for a world economy marked by interdependence between the West and the rest, Brown said 'America and Europe have to reform and invest in infrastructure' while 'India must open up markets more and China should consume more'.