Pulling on the reins

FOR an authoritarian state, China's willingness to accept debate about the goals of economic policy has been surprising and refreshing. It has admitted to uncertainty about the speed of economic growth, to fundamental economic difficulties, such as high inflation, and to problems that have gone hand-in-hand with development, such as corruption.

All this has been surprising because sound management of the economy, and the improvement in people's living standards, go to the heart of the legitimacy of Communist Party rule - and the stability which it needs to keep it in power. It has been refreshing because the debate was one sign that economic liberalisation had brought with it a degree of freedom of speech.

The debate, however, was tolerated for two reasons. One was that the orthodox view favouring fast growth seemed established. The other was that Beijing's rulers were confident that China could handle whatever problems it faced. Discussion was acceptable.

Now Beijing seems to be changing its attitude. Debate about the most sensitive aspect of economic policy - the national growth rate - is being discouraged.

One reason is that a new orthodox line has emerged, via the Politburo. It stresses a cautious view on growth, putting a high value on social, economic (and political) stability. It is aimed at keeping China on a level course between the peaks and troughsof a stop-go economic policy. This is at odds with the go-for-it attitude espoused by the patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Debate has been quelled so as not to give the appearance of disunity.

The other possible interpretation is that Beijing now sees China's economic problems as serious - serious enough to make the rulers worried that debate might promote uncertainty and opposition.

The party's efforts to avoid the signs of disunity are understandable. But clamping down on debate will prove self-defeating. For a start, the tensions between the views on growth are well known. Secondly, dislocation caused by inappropriate policies will be felt, debate or no debate.

But the emergence of a more moderate line on growth as the new orthodoxy, if confirmed, will be prove to be a plus for China. The attempt to keep growth under some kind of control (although it would still be very high by international standards) will reduce the risk that a rocketing economy would come plunging back to earth. Steadier growth would be better for the people, better for the institutions struggling to cope with change and better for foreign investors who sensibly take a long-term interest in the country and are not merely out to get rich quickly.