Reform the buzzword as China opens annual sessions

From: Xinhua Updated: 2014-03-04 11:11
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BEIJING, March 3 -- "The Year of the Ox and the Year of the Horse are the best time for ploughing." Premier Li Keqiang cited this old Chinese saying at a gathering earlier this year to boost morale as he leads the government on its challenging reform task.

And as China's national lawmakers and political advisors gather this week for annual discussion of the country's social and economic development, much hope is pinned on them using their horse sense on reforms to whip the economy onto a more sustainable path in the Year of the Horse.

Since taking office last March, the new leadership has placed deepening reforms at the top of its agenda.

A decision released after the key Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in November last year presented a comprehensive reform package that covered 15 areas and 60 tasks.

The meeting, the significance of which is believed to be on a par with the 1978 session that opened China to the world, vowed to achieve "decisive results" in major reform areas by 2020.

Nearly four months after the meeting, Premier Li is set to deliver his first government work report on Wednesday to review performances in 2013 and lay out priorities for 2014.

"We expect the session to emphasize reform and innovation to unleash new growth drivers, while maintaining macro targets and policies to safeguard stability," Barclays wrote in a recent report.

China's economy expanded 7.7 percent in 2013, overshooting the official target of 7.5 percent, but a shaky start this year, as shown in soft manufacturing activity, has put the focus on how the government will pace and sequence its overhauls while guaranteeing solid growth this year amid the world's fragile recovery.

On Wednesday, Li is expected to announce this year's growth target, which analysts believe will still stick to the principle of a "reasonable growth range," marked by a lower limit designed to ensure steady growth and job creation and an upper limit meant to avert inflation.

As long as the economy stays on that track, China will actively push forward reforms to rebalance the economy, the leadership has frequently repeated.

In its report, Barclays outlined six key areas on which the government is likely to focus: reforms of state-owned enterprises, local government debt, financial liberalization, the environment, further opening up, as well as improvements to elderly care services and pension reform.

"The breakthrough for 2014 will be to straighten out the relationship between government and the market," noted Chi Fulin, head of the Hainan-based think tank China Institute for Reform and Development.

He expects policies giving more power to the market, including simplifying administrative procedures, to come up at the two sessions.

With the external environment showing little improvement, the Chinese government will look to unleash the urbanization potential and deepen rural reforms to boost domestic demand, according to analysts.

Although China's urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time last year, a considerable portion of them have no official city household registration, meaning a long road ahead for China's urbanization ambition.

Social issues will also be high on the agenda as a majority of the more than 30 State Council executive meetings last year were themed on such topics, including fighting air pollution, building a unified urban-rural pension scheme as well as more supplies of subsidized housing.

Just ahead of the two sessions, smog has once again blanketed the Chinese capital for at least a week, highlighting the urgency for the government of taking serious actions to curb pollution.

China's mounting local government debts and overcapacity, deemed as major threats to the country's economic health, are likewise sure to get due attention as the problems have already been singled out as among the six priorities during the Central Economic Work Conference last year.

Those things being said, proper implementation is the key.

"The central government's reform measures have set realistic expectations, but they usually get watered down during local implementations," warned Wang Ling, a government member of staff in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei.

He is hoping that a stricter mechanism on enforcement will make a change.

(Xinhua correspondents Li Yunlu, Cai Min and Han Qiao contributed to this report.)

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