China's private sector has been a key driver of export growth. Photo: iStock
China's export growth is slowing amid sagging demand in the West. Photo: iStock

He talked about “miracles that will impress the world” in the next decade. But during President Xi Jinping’s back-slapping speech to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China’s economic awakening, the devil was in the lack of detail.

Short on specifics, the general secretary of the Communist Party praised the people’s “hard work, wisdom and courage” in fulfilling late Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s cherished dream in 1978 of “reform and opening up.”

As he sat down after the 90-minute address on Tuesday, the applause from the party faithful echoed around the Great Hall of the People. So did the deafening silence when it came to Xi’s vision of the next great leap forward.

“In the decades following China’s 1978 decision to reform and open, its growth was driven by demographics and structural adjustment – letting market logic reshape the economic landscape,” a report released by the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Rhodium Group stated.

“But in recent years, as the easier phase of development gave way to middle-income challenges, Beijing has attempted to reassert control over investment and markets. This was not the first choice. President Xi’s inaugural 2013 Third Plenum economic plan – while still couched in Communist Party nomenclature – was distinctly geared toward a decisive role for markets. Implementation of those goals, rather than aspiration, has been most lacking,” it added.

One crucial area which has suffered in Xi’s new phase of “opening up and reforms” is the private sector, the study pointed out.

Ballooning debt

During his first term in office, plans were rolled out to shake up the colossal state-owned sector, curb ballooning debt and promote policies to stimulate small- and medium-size businesses.

Opening up again was the mantra. But five years on, very little has changed. In fact, the situation has deteriorated, the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Rhodium Group pointed out.

“China’s private sector is shrinking for the first time in two decades – an extraordinary development contrary to the hopes seeded by the 2013 economic reform objectives and decades of talk about withdrawing the state from the marketplace,” the report revealed.

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How this squares with Xi’s rallying call this week, when he highlighted the role of the “state economy” while promising to increase development of the “private sector,” is debatable.

But what came over crystal clear was that the CCP will still remain at the heart of “everything,” including the country’s centralized economic model.

Indeed, this approach is in stark contrast to voices inside the Party demanding reforms to be accelerated, particularly in the “private sector.”

“What we learned from the past 40 years is that we must insist on a market-oriented and law-based direction of reform,” Wu Jinglian, the influential pro-market economist, told the recent Chinese Economists 50 Forum.

Uncertain times

For Beijing, these are uncertain times as it grapples with a slowing economy while trying to hammer out a deal with the United States to end the trade war, which has dragged on since the Spring.

A clearer picture is likely to emerge by the weekend after the Central Economic Work Conference maps out the road ahead for 2019.

“I expect [it] will face the reality of an ‘intensifying economic slowdown,’” Shen Jianguang, the chief economist at JD Finance, said. “Officials could lower the growth target for next year to 6%, to make room for stepping up reform efforts and dealing with external risks.”

Data released by the National Bureau of Statistics has painted a harrowing picture in the past month with manufacturing activity declining and consumer spending shrinking, along with stalling new car sales and a cooling property market squeezed by tighter credit restrictions.

Analysts and economist are even predicting that the economy will continue to weaken next year which will hit GDP growth.

“[What we need is] to sound a clarion call for deepening [economic] reform,” Xiang Songzuo, a senior economist at Renmin University in Beijing, said.

Instead, the only sound you can hear from the corridors of power are alarm bells.

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