In the run up to President Xi Jinping’s speech at the grand gathering in Beijing on Tuesday to mark China’s 40th anniversary of reform and opening up, expectations were high, particularly among some overseas analysts, that he would announce substantive measures to defuse the trade war with the United States and outline plans to overhaul the economy.
Disappointment was palpable and stock markets in Asia took a hit as Xi announced no new policies and instead devoted the bulk of his speech to lauding the vision and wisdom of the ruling Communist Party and vowing to continue to strengthen authoritarian rule.
In fact, some overseas media detected a defiant tone in Xi’s speech. While he vowed to continue the economic reforms started by Deng Xiaoping 40 years ago, he also declared that no one was “in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done” and said there was “no textbook of golden rules to follow”. His remarks appeared to be aimed at countering demands from Washington, which has turned up the pressure on Beijing to undertake structural changes regarding its support for the state sector and its discrimination against foreign and private enterprises, among other things.
Some overseas analysts have thus surmised that Xi’s slogan-laden speech may mean China’s concessions to the US in the upcoming trade negotiations will be more cosmetic than substantial.
But this view is misplaced as it fails to appreciate China’s opaque political conventions in such matters.
For one, grand gatherings like the one on Tuesday to mark the anniversaries of milestones are always more about political grandstanding than expounding on substantive measures. A theme in the speeches by Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin at the 30th and 20th anniversaries of reform and opening up was that the party’s leadership was a prerequisite for China’s economic leap forward and thus should take the credit for all the achievements.
Indeed, if one sifts through media reports of the anniversaries of 10 and 20 years ago, remarkably similar things were being said back then about expectations and disappointment as are being said now.
Having said that, it is hard to underestimate the significance of Xi’s speech at a time when there are so many concerns about China’s direction as Xi strengthens the party’s authoritarian controls and the role of the state sector.
That he compared opening up and reform as “a great revolution” that China would continue to pursue will help to assuage those concerns.
At the gathering, the party leadership also gave a nod to the importance of the private sector by including private businessmen among 100 individuals honoured as “pioneers of reforms”. They included Robin Li of Baidu, Jack Ma of Alibaba, and Pony Ma of Tencent, the three representatives of China’s booming hi-tech industry. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post. That the leadership also honoured 10 foreigners was its way of showing a commitment to opening up.
Essentially, the trade war with the US may have been the elephant in the room but it was not going to be allowed to spoil the mood.
It is appropriate that after the celebratory gathering on Tuesday, China’s political elites immediately went into their annual economic policy-setting meeting, which started on Wednesday in Beijing. That was when they would have to confront the hard reality of a slumping economy made worse by falling consumption and exports in the middle of the tariff war with the US, and try to thrash out detailed measures to prop up the economy and make necessary concessions to the US at the same time.
Even as those measures start to trickle out following the close of the meeting on Friday, they are still unlikely to satisfy many overseas analysts. This is because measures reported in China’s state media tend to be patchy and long on principles, but short on details.
More interestingly, there has been always a noticeable gap between the reform measures China trumpets and Western analysts’ understanding of them.
For China, any incremental change in governance or policymaking can be dressed up as a bold reform measure, but this then proves disappointing for analysts when they examine the issue more closely.
For instance, on Tuesday, Xi said the Chinese government had introduced more than 1,600 reform measures, many of which had been difficult and daunting, since he came to power six years ago.
But foreign analysts have long complained that under Xi’s leadership, China has been painfully slow in undertaking necessary reforms, and in some areas is even going backwards with more and more foreign investors feeling unwelcome.
Back in January, Liu He, Xi’s most trusted economic adviser, told the annual Davos meeting that China, as part of its efforts to mark 40 years of reform and opening up, would announce a package of reforms that would “exceed the expectations of the international community”.
Maybe since then the ensuing trade war with the US has messed up China’s timetable for releasing those measures, as Chinese and US officials are to begin intense negotiations to defuse the trade conflict in January.
To be fair, thanks to US pressure, China has this year begun to grant foreign investors the wider market access they have hankered after for so long. For instance, it has given the go-ahead for Tesla, the electric carmaker, to build its first overseas factory in Shanghai, at a total investment of US$2 billion. ExxonMobil Corp has announced it will build a petrochemical complex and invest in a liquefied natural gas terminal in Guangdong, at a cost of billions of US dollars. Meanwhile, foreign banks and brokerages have been given wider access to Chinese financial markets.
This year alone, China has thrice lowered tariffs on imported consumer and industrial goods, bringing its average tariff level to 7.5 per cent, which it claims is slightly higher than European Union levels but lower than most developing countries.
However, all those moves have failed to impress foreign media and analysts, therefore falling short of that pledge to “exceed the expectations” of the international community.
And the clock is ticking, as China and the US have only until March to defuse the trade war. Failure to reach an agreement would have serious implications for the world economy.
However, if history is any guide, there is good reason for optimism.
Soon after China marked its 20th anniversary of opening up and reform in 1998, Beijing started earnest negotiations to join the World Trade Organisation – a move that paved the way for China’s economic lift off. And when China marked the 30th anniversary in 2008, it managed to overcome the Global Financial Crisis and take its economy to a new level.
The Chinese leadership relishes trumpeting its vision and wisdom for undertaking bold reforms to boost the economy in the face of difficult times, but the reality is that its progress is usually driven by crisis.
Now, as it marks the 40th anniversary of reforms, it stands at that juncture again.
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper