Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign
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Analysts say the reform steps already taken have been incapable of kick-starting real change, because the leaders have struggled to dismantle entrenched interest groups.

Little impact seen from Party leadership's reform push as interest groups dig in

Changes announced at fourth plenum have failed to take root at local level, experts say

It is supposed to be a multi-pronged reform attack. At last year's Communist Party plenum, the leadership said it would cut government interference in the market and the judiciary as well as improve public services. The deadline for "decisive progress" on the agenda was 2020.

While it's too early to judge the success of the overall programme, some analysts say the steps already taken have been trivial and incapable of kick-starting real change.

That's because the leaders have struggled to dismantle entrenched interest groups, despite President and party General Secretary Xi Jinping consolidating his grip on power through high-profile anti-corruption campaigns and control of various powerful government bodies.

"One of the biggest challenges for Xi and Premier Li Keqiang is how to get their reform policies enacted outside Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the central government," said Oliver Meng Rui, a professor at the China Europe International Business School.

"Local officials … are worried that their experiment could go wrong and they'll be punished if no one takes political responsibility. It is not surprising for local officials to take a wait-and-see attitude when they sense that there is still a power struggle higher up."

But many of Xi's reforms have had only a minor impact. For example, the decades-old distinction between urban and rural dwellers in the household registration system, or , has been removed but the gap in entitlements between the two groups of people will largely stay the same for years to come.

Other much-touted changes include further easing of the one-child policy, suggested corporatisation of some government-affiliated bodies and alterations to the ranks of university presidents and top academics.

Headway has been made in the groundwork for a property registry, a system that could pave the way for a property tax and shed some much-needed light on officials' assets.

But, according to Rui, there's been little progress on the issues seen as key to overhauling the economy such as interest rate liberalisation and long-awaited tax reforms to streamline fiscal ties between the central and local governments.

"Experiments with mixed ownership at powerful state-owned enterprises have started [too], but the key question is still how diversified the ownership can become," Rui said.

Some of the most oft-cited progress in state media has been in cutting government red tape, with reports saying more than 600 approval procedures have been scrapped in the past year. Here, too, the gains have been minor. A senior researcher who works for a quasi-government organ for small- and medium-sized enterprises said the approval powers relinquished were "minor and marginalised" ones in the beginning.

"It's good publicity. But that's it. The companies don't really feel a big difference," he said. "When government officials are asked to make a list of approval items they have to give up, of course they'll choose the less-important ones."

Worse still, in some regions the authorities have held on to that power even though the approvals are officially no longer requested. "For a private business, you have to go through the process if you want to get things done. There's no other choice … There's no accountability whatsoever," he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Little success after year of reform push