Written by Kerry Brown.
National People’s Congresses in China tend to overwhelm participants with policy detail. Li Keqiang’s government report came to forty densely printed pages, and took him more than two hours to read out. There were plenty of other documents issued over the period from March 5, from entities like the Ministry of Finance to the National Development and Reform Commission which were equally comprehensive. It is like the Chinese government is cramming a whole year’s worth of press releases into a few days. No wonder people sitting at the centre of this feel like they have a kind of mental indigestion at the end of it.
Standing back, however, there are two big takeaway themes from the “lianghui” in 2015. The first involves speaking to the Chinese public mood. In an odd way, Premier Li and his colleagues have to convey two completely contrary messages. On the one hand, they want to reassure everyone and tell them that despite the raft of new initiatives and ideas that the Party and government have issued from 2013 into last year, things are going to plan, there is no reason to panic, and everything is on track. Growth might be falling, and consumption, as Li said, might still be too low, but all of these issues are being dealt with. The government has a plan, and it is doing something about this. On the other hand, the government has to guard against luring people into a sense of false security. So they have to also put in plenty of sobering information about tough challenges, how necessary it is to be disciplined in this moment of trial and change, and how the greatest enemy of reform is not opposition to it, but complacency.
Reading the various documents issued by the Congress, it is clear on this first big theme that while the government and Party over the last two years have put in place the policy framework and its intellectual justification – use of the market as the necessary tool for reform and better quality growth, more support for the non-state sector, greater investment in human capital rather than fixed assets, etc – now comes the hard part: implementation. The sense I get from reading, for instance, Li’s work report is that he would have wanted to come out with much more vivid and stronger sign of success, and more concrete deliverables than he did. His speech is a symphony with no rousing crescendos. In the good old days under Hu, the only thing then-Premier Wen Jiabao had to do was flatly state the GDP growth rate, which most of the time was stellar, and people could doze off while the rest of the speech was delivered knowing all was well in the world. But these days, this sort of crude growth is no longer where the action is. So the government has to produce other figures, like jobs created, or levels of foreign investment – in order to engage with people. This makes the work report more like a budget in the west, where the audience is listening hard to see what sort of tax breaks or incentives they might get for themselves. There is no one big focal point like there used to be. Chinese politics is indeed entering a new phase in the China of what Li called `the new normal.’
This issue of implementation brings up the second big theme: the evolving role of government itself. For someone who sits at the heart of the central ministry machinery in Beijing, Li reserved some of his toughest criticism for the very entity he is charge of, saying that it often did not implement measures well, or was inefficient. He also promised that it would get out of some investment areas, map out a clearer role for itself, and generally slim down its operations. Almost in the same breath as saying consumers needed to spend more, he declared that officials needed to spend less on banquets and travel.
The talk of supporting the non-state sector and entrepreneurialism through tax breaks and more regulatory clarity is a major part of this. So is the further scaling back of state enterprises so that both local and foreign partners can look to invest in them or compete with them. We shouldn’t take this criticism that Li produced though as equating to a Reaganite disdain for government per se. That would be an odd thing to happen only a few months after the main leader in the country had produced a book with the simple title `The Governance of China’, which made it clear that this administration does believe in the importance of government. What is important, as the Congress makes clear, is better quality governance, not its extinction. In view of the vested interest, the comfortable, self protecting cliques, and the general conservatism of the bureaucracy in China, this is almost certainly the hardest challenge that Li and his colleagues have set themselves to achieve. It is not surprising that it is one they have put most effort and political capital into. The problem is, as a former leader found out, taking on the bureaucracy can become an all consuming, day and night battle at the expense of everything else. Let’s hope, therefore, that in this area Xi Jinping has better success than Mao Zedong, who he is often compared to, and who ended up being defeated by the bureaucracy he had tried to destroy over fifty years ago.
Kerry Brown is Professor and Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is a CPI Fellow and CPI blog Regular Contributor. He tweets @BkerryChina. Latest book: The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China. Image Credit: CC by Baron Reznik/Flickr