China: no great leap forward

China-watchers were left disappointed after the leadership failed to make plans to liberalise the economy.

China's Third Plenum, a four-day gathering designed to chart China's direction for the next decade, ended this week. A similar meeting in 1978 set China on the path towards the free market.

This time observers were hoping for a clear sign of the extent to which China intends to liberalise its economy now that the new Communist Party leaders are stamping their authority on the government. They didn't get one.

What the commentators said

Bloomberg, for instance, noted that the 5,000 character statement alluded to reform' 59 times; socialism' 28 times but finance' just once.

"Mavens [mulling the paper] over their macchiatos" will have noted that it said markets would henceforth be made decisive' in allocating resources, a step up from their basic' role of old. Then again, the economic role of the state is described as dominant'.

Nor is there a sense from this vague document of how the various changes mentioned fit together, said Capital Economics. "Without a clearly articulated vision to guide officials at all levels of government, we suspect that reformers will struggle to push piecemeal efforts against the opposition of vested interests."

Yet, without a bigger role for the market and hence private-sector activity in the next few years, China won't graduate from middle-income country to rich one, as Ian King pointed out in The Times.

Productivity and growth aren't going to rise significantly if state-owned industries continue to dominate, especially with the labour force now shrinking. Forget about the plenum communiqu, concluded John Foley on Breakingviews, and just focus on what China actually does in the near future.

The acid test is whether it lets a struggling state-owned enterprise fail and be taken over, which would be "contrary to everything socialist leaders hold dear".

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