Lawmakers will gather in Beijing on Sunday for the last parliamentary session of President Xi Jinping’s first term, with officials optimistic about China’s economic outlook and downright bullish about the country’s global standing after Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office.
But while the time seems ripe for China to seize a greater role on the world stage, the turbulence caused by Mr Trump’s arrival and the UK’s decision to leave the EU has obscured an inconvenient truth. Beijing has yet to implement the hundreds of bold reforms promised by Mr Xi in 2013 on which its economic future depends. Among Chinese officials, the new mantra is “just wait for his second term”.
Widely recognised as China’s most ambitious and powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, Mr Xi has won plaudits for his graft purge and more muscular foreign policy. “His biggest achievement has been the elimination of political rivals through the anti-corruption campaign,” says Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian.
Accomplishments in the economic realm, especially the party’s promise to give the market “a decisive role in resource allocation”, are harder to identify.
“Economic reform has not been as fast as many of us expected,” admits one Chinese official. However, he says the pace will pick up after Mr Xi has installed more of his lieutenants in key posts at the year-end party congress that will start the clock on his second term.
The personnel reshuffle is already under way. Liu Shiyu, head of China’s security regulator since last year, has been championing a drive against speculative bubbles and market manipulation. The campaign’s victims include one of China’s richest men, Yao Zhenhua, who was recently handed a 10-year ban from the insurance sector.
On Thursday Guo Shuqing, a veteran reformer and newly appointed head of China’s banking regulator, said one of his most important tasks for the year would be addressing systemic risks in the financial sector.
In private, some Chinese government officials argue that there has been slow but steady progress, on everything from interest rate liberalisation to grain procurement. One likens the reform process to a cacophonous Peking opera, which often seems to unfold at a glacial pace. “Every minute feels like an hour,” the official says. “It feels like nothing is happening, but afterwards you realise a story was told.”
Yi Xianrong, professor at Qingdao University, says interest rate liberalisation has been the most significant reform of Mr Xi’s tenure, as it will help make “the entire financial system more market-driven”.
In its most recent China Economic Update, published in 2015, the World Bank identified 27 “key reforms” the country had achieved, 20 of which were aimed at improving the allocation of capital.