Column: The end of Chinese central planning

Apr 09 2014, 03:30 IST
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SummaryChina is moving away from its once single-minded emphasis on growth targeting

Isn’t it now time for China to abandon the concept of a growth target?” That was the question I asked Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei at the 15th annual China Development Forum, which brings together top Chinese officials and an international delegation of academics, leaders of multilateral organizations, and business executives. Having attended the CDF since former Premier Zhu Rongji initiated it in 2000, I can attest to its role as one of China’s most important platforms for debate. Zhu welcomed the exchange of views at the Forum as a true intellectual test for China’s reformers.

It was in that spirit that I posed my question to Lou, whom I have known since the late 1990’s. In that period, he has been Deputy Minister of Finance, founding Chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corporation, and now Minister of Finance. I have always found him to be direct, intellectually curious, a first-rate analytical thinker, and a forward-looking advocate of market-based reforms. He is cut from the same cloth as his mentor, Zhu.

My question was set in the context of the new thrust of Chinese reforms announced at last November’s Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which emphasised the “decisive role” of market forces in shaping the next phase of China’s economic development.

I prefaced my question by underscoring the inherent contradiction between a target and a forecast in framing China’s major economic objectives. I argued that the former embodied the obsolete straitjacket of central planning, while the latter was far more consistent with market-based outcomes. A target perpetuates the image of the all-powerful state-directed Chinese growth machine —a government that will essentially stop at nothing to hit a predetermined number.

While it may seem like splitting hairs, continuing to frame the economic goal as a target sends a message of determined and explicit guidance that now seems at odds with the government’s market-oriented intentions. Wouldn’t dropping the concept send a far more powerful message? Isn’t it time for China to let go of the last vestiges of its centrally planned past?

Lou’s response: “Good question.”

China, he went on, is in fact moving away from its once single-minded emphasis on growth targeting. The government now stresses three macroeconomic goals—job creation, price stability, and GDP growth. And, as evidenced by the annual “work report” that the premier recently submitted to China’s National People’s Congress, the current emphasis is in

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