Ideology

China's Dueling Economic Theories


Should China push for radical reform or return to a more government-directed economy? It’s a familiar question made more urgent by the downfall of Bo Xilai, seen by many as a leader of the Communist Party’s conservative faction. A recent People’s Daily editorial that strongly supported more reform, plus a call by the World Bank and a research arm of China’s Cabinet for a smaller state role in financing and industry, have highlighted the issues. “The debate will be messy,” wrote Standard Chartered (STAN:LN) China economist Stephen Green in a March 1 report. However, he added, “something good is stirring in Beijing.”

The back-and-forth focuses on two models. The Chongqing model calls for a top-down push for social equality, with a stronger role for government in the economy; its name evokes the giant southwestern city where Bo Xilai ran the show until early March. The other model plays down the role of state companies, encourages the growth of more capital-intensive, value-added industries, and favors grassroots political reform. This is the Guangdong approach, named for the coastal province that was first to grow rich on exports and now is a center for experiments in governance. “I am strongly supportive of the Guangdong model and wary of the Chongqing model,” wrote Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping on March 16 in the Beijing-based business weekly Economic Observer. “In the long term, it is more important that the masses have the right to struggle for their own interests.”

Despite Bo Xilai’s fall from power, the Chongqing model still has its adherents. A website whose name translates as Utopia in English supports the state-heavy approach, and was blocked after Bo’s dismissal in an unfolding scandal that may implicate him in corruption. The site, back in business, has posted hundreds of articles supporting Bo, says David Kelly, research director at the Beijing-based consulting firm China Policy.

To reverse growing social inequality in its region, Chongqing has encouraged farmers to become urban residents and qualify for better benefits, and started to build 800,000 units of public housing. Bo also created several large conglomerates by merging more than a dozen smaller state companies. Despite Chongqing’s success in attracting such investors as Ford Motor (F) and Foxconn Technology Group, foreign businessmen have worried that government-backed businesses could squeeze them out. A crackdown by city officials last fall on Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) over mislabeled pork forced the world’s biggest retailer to shutter 13 stores temporarily, spooking investors. “If the Chongqing model is one that favors a greater role for the government, with state enterprises managing the economy, that is a negative for foreign businesses,” says Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Also disturbing was Bo’s handling of a cleanup of the mob in Chongqing: He jailed not only the alleged mobsters but also a top Beijing lawyer who was defending one of the accused.

Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang has been upgrading the province’s economy from labor- and energy-intensive, polluting export industries such as toys, textiles, and plastics to newer and cleaner ones including software, new energy, and biotech. Wang has opted to rely mainly on private businesses, encouraging their growth with tax breaks and squeezing lower-margin industries with tighter labor and environmental regulations. Shenzhen, for example, has seen many of its dying industries depart in what Wang has dubbed “emptying the cage and changing the bird.”

What excites Chinese liberals more is Wang’s encouragement of grassroots policy making. That includes giving workers more of a voice within the official union, as well as a soft-handed approach to last year’s Wukan village uprising over land grabs and the death of a protester. Wukan, on Guangdong’s coast, just held what appear to be unrestricted elections for a new village chief.

Which of these two models will gain the upper hand is unclear. Clarity is unlikely at least until the fall Party Congress, when China will replace most of its top leaders, and both camps may vie for supremacy for years. “In 2001, we had a road map and that was the World Trade Organization accession agreement. Today we don’t have a sense of what comes next for China,” says the Chamber’s Murck. “There is more uncertainty than we’ve seen in years.”

The bottom line: As social inequality deepens and growth slows, China’s leaders must choose between more market reforms or a stronger state.

Dexter_roberts
Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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