By Kevin Yao and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – China unwrapped its boldest set of economic and social reforms in nearly three decades on Friday, relaxing its one-child policy and further freeing up markets in order to put the world’s second-largest economy on a more stable footing.
The sweeping changes helped dispel doubts about the leadership’s zest for the reforms needed to give the economy fresh momentum as three decades of breakneck expansion shows signs of faltering.
A reform document released by the Communist Party following a four-day conclave of its top brass promised land and residence registration reforms needed to boost China’s urban population and allow its transition to a western-style service and consumption-driven economy.
Pricing of fuels, electricity and other key resources – now a source of major distortions – would be mainly decided by markets, while Beijing also pledged to speed up the opening up of its capital account and further financial liberalization.
“The reforms are unprecedented,” said Xu Hongcai, senior economist at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, a well-connected Beijing think tank. “Reforms in 1990s were limited to some areas, now reforms are all-round.”
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, appointed in March, announced several breakthroughs in social policy, pledging to unify rural and urban social security systems and to abolish controversial labor camps, the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing the document.
The plans, more comprehensive and specific than initially thought, also dispelled concerns that Xi would need more time to take full charge of China’s vast party and government bureaucracy.
China-watchers took the establishment of a working group to lead economic reform and a new State Security Council as further signs of how effectively Xi managed to consolidate power just eight months after he officially took over.
“This is almost an unprecedented move toward unlimited power,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and political commentator.
The initial brief reform outline published on Tuesday triggered a stock market sell-off, with investors taking its scant details as a sign of a lack of commitment on Xi’s part or his inability to convert vested interests, such as powerful state-owned companies.
But a raft of specific policy plans ranging from interest rate and currency regime liberalization to residence registration and land reforms and the opening up of some of the protected sectors to private and foreign firms seemed to put such concerns to rest.
The commitment to abolish labor camps was also remarkable, given that several political sources had told Reuters this was an area where Xi was facing much resistance.
Few commentators had also expected any significant attempts to reform powerful state monopolies, even though many economists argue that other reforms will have only limited success if the big state-owned firms’ stranglehold on key markets is not tackled.
The initial outline of the plans on Tuesday had affirmed those firms’ strategic role in the economy. But the longer report on Friday raised state firm dividend payments, allowed private firms to enter some of the protected sectors and encouraged them to take part in reforming the state-owned firms.
What appeared to be an early leak of the document on Chinese social media set off a rally in Chinese stock markets hours before its official release, with investors cheering its relatively detailed language on reforms.
Still, economists said that having a good plan was only part of the success and making the ambitious agenda a reality would be the new leaders’ true challenge.
“Based on the headlines … they are moving in a positive direction,” said Jan von Gerich, fixed income chief analyst with Nordea Bank in Helsinki. “But one should not get too carried away as this will be a long process.”