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Hopes for freer rein on market in China as changes loom

Rigid controls and regulations have become "unbearable" on mainland, says CICC chief who believes changes will come next year

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 4:13am

The mainland's new Communist Party leadership, headed by Xi Jinping, will probably unveil new market-oriented changes late next year, according to Li Jiange, head of the country's biggest investment bank.

Li, chairman of China International Capital Corporation and vice-chairman of state-owned Central Huijin Investment, which holds stakes in the nation's biggest lenders, said the focus would probably be on reducing government intervention in the economy and breaking up state monopolies.

He was speaking at Caixin Media's annual conference in Beijing on the weekend.

"Expectations are high" for the new leaders to make changes, as government intervention, ranging from excessive regulation to rigid price controls, had become "unbearable" over the past few years, said Li.

He previously worked for the Development Research Centre, an organisation that advises the State Council, China's cabinet.

"When inflation was high, many Chinese stores, merchants and even producers received phone calls from regulators telling them not to increase prices," Li said. "But how can a supermarket not change the price of pork if hog prices are rising?"

At a separate conference in Beijing on Saturday, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan said it was "hard to reach consensus" on detailed reforms as China was a big and unbalanced country.

The new government would continue to value changes initiated at local level although it would also still attach great importance to overall planning, he said. China must allow trial reforms so that it could test what could go wrong, he said.

Xi, set to become president in March, may face economic growth of 7 per cent next year, the slowest in 23 years, according to Pacific Investment Management, which runs the world's largest bond fund.

Standard Chartered sees a risk of annual expansion slumping to between 3 per cent and 4 per cent within 10 to 15 years without market-driven change to introduce more competition for state enterprises.

Growth this year may slide to 7.7 per cent, according to an estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg. That would be the slowest pace since 1999 and down from an annual average pace of 10.6 per cent in the decade through last year.

Li added his voice to calls by economist Wu Jinglian, billionaire entrepreneur Liang Wengen and party liberals for the government to allow a bigger role for market forces, roll back the dominance of state-owned enterprises and give equal treatment to private companies.

Speaking at the Caixin conference, Wu, a senior research fellow at the centre, said China needed to draft a plan for economic and political change that would push forward the development of a competitive market economy.

Wu, who was named Man of the Year in 2001 by the official Shanghai Securities News, is known for describing the nation's stock market as being worse than a casino.

The Development Research Centre collaborated with the World Bank to produce a report titled China 2030 published in February this year.

It outlined policies to help the nation sustain its growth while avoiding the so-called middle-income trap, where expansion slows because of a failure to implement reforms needed to create a wealthy middle class.

The report highlighted the need to overhaul state-owned companies, banks, land, labour and financial markets, promote competition and reduce the role of government.

The document was endorsed by premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, according to Ding Shuang, senior economist for China at Citigroup, who previously worked for the country's central bank.

The party central committee, made up of 205 officials, including the government's top leaders, army generals and heads of the biggest state-owned enterprises, will hold a plenary session late next year.

Li Jiange said that should lead to the unveiling of a new blueprint to guide the country's reforms.

Opponents of market-oriented changes gained a louder voice during the global financial crisis when the government's intervention in the economy increased and intensified, Li said.

"We need to review what the Chinese Communist Party decided 20 years ago: that is to let market forces play a fundamental role in allocating resources."

Li, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said members of the committee met recently with managers of Chinese private businesses.

"They told us they don't have the willingness or the guts to compete against state players in certain sectors because they have repeatedly had their fingers burnt," Li said. "We must give private business equal treatment."

Liang Wengen, who heads Sany Heavy Industry, the nation's biggest machinery maker, called on the new leadership this month to create a level playing field for private companies.

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