Xi Jinping’s Failed Promises Dim Hopes for Economic Change in 2nd Term

BEIJING — For years, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has talked the talk of economic reform. In January, he dazzled business executives in Davos, Switzerland, with a defense of international trade. Last month, he urged officials to “seize hold of reform and make it an even bigger priority.” And the annual meeting of China’s legislature, starting Sunday, appears sure to echo that theme.
But as Mr. Xi nears the end of his first five-year term as Communist Party leader, his record has not lived up to the bold statements, critics say.
The question now is whether he was ever really serious about taking the painful steps needed to repair the economy, or merely paying lip service to reform to justify his tightening grip on power.
Mr. Xi’s defenders argue that he had to consolidate his authority first, before he could make the potentially wrenching decisions needed to open markets and trim bloated state-owned industries. With weak growth in the rest of the world and demand for China’s exports flagging, they contend, there was little margin for error and caution was warranted.
The proof will be in the second term, they say, when Mr. Xi finally has the power to push through difficult economic adjustments.
Mr. Xi is already China’s most powerful leader in decades. He has repeatedly used his authority, though, to undercut reforms he says are necessary, ordering heavy-handed intervention in the stock market, for example, and restrictions on the movement of money abroad and property prices.
The problem, critics say, is that Mr. Xi’s demands for centralized control, stability and political conformity have often drowned out hesitant steps toward economic liberalization. And his second term is likely to bring more of the same, they say.
“I’m highly skeptical, since I don’t think it’s a lack of authority or the opposition of special interests that have kept him from moving in that direction so far,” said Scott Kennedy, the director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Rather, he’s operated according to his instincts in the face of economic challenges. And I don’t expect his instincts or those challenges to change much.”
Many economists, executives and policy advisers in Beijing do not disguise their disappointment about what has happened to Mr. Xi’s promises of an audacious overhaul of the economy.
In 2013, he and his premier, Li Keqiang, laid out big plans to give markets and entrepreneurs more room to grow. The market would play a “decisive role” in allocating resources, Mr. Xi declared.
Wu Jinglian, one of China’s most prominent economists, said at a recent meeting in Beijing that “the direction of reform laid out in these documents is clear, and the measures are right, but the problem has been implementation.”
“Putting it relatively tactfully,” he continued, “it hasn’t been vigorous enough.”
Economists abroad have been less tactful.
“Virtually across the board, China is falling short of its own self-declared objectives for reform,” said Daniel H. Rosen, a founding partner of the Rhodium Group, an economic research company. “Even the G.D.P. growth that we have is ever more reliant on debt, and this is a consequence of falling short on reform.”
To be sure, the Xi years have not been static.
China has loosened controls on its domestic bond market, allowing more foreign participation. The policy that limited most urban households to one child was abolished and replaced by a “two child” policy and even measures to encourage couples to have two children. Mr. Li, the premier, has made it his mission to cut down paperwork and regulations that weigh on small businesses.
“I feel that a lot of changes actually have happened,” said Jianguang Shen, a China economist in the Hong Kong office of Mizuho Securities. “People expect faster, radical reform after the party congress” late this year, when Mr. Xi starts a second term as party leader.
Some experts argue that Mr. Xi will then be politically secure and more willing to let his new team push through contentious changes, including cutting more excess industry, shedding jobs in ailing state companies and giving private businesses a bigger share of bank loans.
With the economy still growing at an impressive 6.7 percent last year, officials say the government has kept the right balance between change and stability.
“The boat sails best when the winds and waves are steady,” Liu Shiyu, the chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, said at a news conference last Sunday. “Without stable market conditions, no reform can make progress, and there may even be reversal of the strides that we’ve made.”
But even many who accept China’s model of gradual, government-guided reform say that under Mr. Xi, promised changes have stalled or been reversed. Mr. Xi, who dominates economic policy and much else besides, has flinched from the harder changes needed for long-term prosperity and has yet to find a way to keep the economy growing without administering ever larger injections of debt.
And while many economists, including some of Mr. Xi’s top advisers, continue to lobby openly for more market-oriented policies, the government has also become less tolerant of those who directly and publicly criticize it for not doing enough, including by censoring them on social media.
The economy has been slowing steadily and has required larger and larger amounts of debt each year just to avoid a much steeper slowdown.
It is Mr. Xi’s own policies, though, that raise the biggest questions about his commitment to change. As more and more capital has left China, the government has restored restrictions on moving money abroad.
While taxes have been increased on service industries, promises to introduce a property tax and other fiscal changes have made little headway. That logjam has left the finances of local governments in many manufacturing-dependent cities dangerously dependent on land sales for revenue.
Mr. Xi also promised to make state corporations leaner and more focused on achieving financial health in their core businesses. But he also demanded that party committees have a bigger say in company decisions, leaving plenty of room for party officials to undercut corporate reorganization.
“On the one hand, there’s the talk of strengthening reform. On the other hand, all the agencies are stressing enhancing leadership by the party,” Li Weisen, an economist at Fudan University in Shanghai who advocates market liberalization, said in a telephone interview.
“We’ve maybe issued over a hundred of these reform documents,” he added, “but which ones have really been implemented, including fiscal reforms?”
Business leaders say more should be done to lighten their burdens. Liu Hanyuan, the chairman of Tongwei Group, a large manufacturer of solar panels based in Chengdu, in southwest China, used a Chinese aphorism to describe the burden of regulations, taxes and local fees on Chinese companies:
“We should abandon the idea that as many fees and taxes should be collected as possible. We should keep enough water to raise fish.”
Some of the initial hopes that Mr. Xi would turn out to be a market liberalizer were probably never realistic. The Chinese government’s idea of reform has never been the free-market bonanza that some economists advocate.
Even Deng Xiaoping, who first injected elements of capitalism into the Chinese economy in the 1980s, stressed that the government must retain control. His approach has delivered decades of growth that has lifted living standards for hundreds of millions of people while creating hundreds of billionaires.
During the 1990s, President Jiang Zemin pressed ahead with changes that shut down thousands of struggling state-owned factories, encouraged private entrepreneurs to join the party and prepared for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in late 2001. Yet he, too, remained committed to state ownership, and his successor, Hu Jintao, proved even more committed to steering development through state planning.
Most experts expect Mr. Xi will stay much the same leader he has been for five years, unless slowing growth and rising debt produce a shock. Yet the cost of inaction could be an increasingly debt-ridden, inefficient economy.
“If the government keeps meddling in the markets to ensure growth, then this road will become impassable,” said Mr. Li, the professor in Shanghai. “The problems won’t be solved and will only get worse.”