Xi Jinping’s China Roadmap Is Awash in Contradictions

China’s Communist leaders have always been comfortable with contradictions. How else could a party that rules in the name of Marxism-Leninism have created a country with more billionaires and wider income disparities than many capitalist democracies? It’s even baked into the governing ideology, which sees dynamic opposing forces as ever-present, with society moving forward as these are resolved in a process known as dialectical materialism.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be wholly surprised when the Communist Party general secretary explains a landmark shift in economic and social policy in terms that, in several key respects, appear to conflict with each other.

Xi Jinping’s speech, reproduced in the party journal Qiushi on Oct. 15, is the most substantial and authoritative statement yet on the “common prosperity” campaign that has upended industries, overturned assumptions about China’s development path and wiped hundreds of billions of dollars off stock markets this year. Xi, who is also China’s president, did provide clarity in certain areas. In particular: There will be no lurch back to the uniform egalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and no abandoning of markets. Beyond these broad outlines, though, there are several paradoxes to ponder.

Increasing productivity is a goal of the campaign, yet the party will also “uphold the dominant role” of the public sector. That’s difficult to reconcile, if hardly unexpected, given how Xi has championed state companies since becoming president in 2013. Most Western economists argue that China needs to level the playing field between private firms and inefficient state-owned enterprises if it is to reverse a trend of weakening productivity growth.

Granted, there are several nods of encouragement to private businesses. The party should “mobilize the zeal of entrepreneurs,” since small and midsize company owners are important contributors to prosperity. Still, these sit awkwardly beside the party’s heavy-handed interventions in the private sector this year, which have included banning online education companies from making profits and leaning on wealthy corporations and their billionaire owners to donate to social causes.

The ostensible objective, from the government’s perspective, is to enforce tighter discipline on companies that have become too big and powerful, while allowing private-sector competition to flourish at a lower level. But appeals for more entrepreneurs to come forward and get rich also conflict with warnings of unfair asset allocation and vague promises to regulate “excessive income.” How is a successful businessman to know when his income has become excessive, in the absence of clear and transparent regulations?

Even the pledge to seek gradual progress — an attempt, presumably, to assuage concerns that the party might plunge the country into another of its quixotic upheavals — isn’t unequivocal. The speech also promises “remarkable and substantive progress” toward common prosperity by 2035.

Elsewhere in the nearly 4,000-character address, which Xi delivered to a party meeting in August, lack of detail leaves scope for doubt over how exactly the party intends to proceed. For example, the speech says rural residents’ income from land should be increased but stops short of saying whether land-use rights will be made tradeable. Meanwhile, the schooling of children of rural migrant workers should be “properly resolved” so they can move to cities without worries. Again, the speech doesn’t specify whether this means these workers can send their children to urban schools, still less whether the hukou residency system that discriminates against rural migrants will be abolished. These are key changes that could have a major impact on inequality.

Arguably, Xi shouldn’t have to concern himself with such details. It’s for the helmsman to paint the grand vision, and for his technocratic underlings to work out how to make it a reality. For observers, though, the effect is to turn Xi’s common prosperity roadmap into something of a Rorschach test. To an extent, investors, analysts and economists will see what they are inclined or conditioned to see in it.

The plasticity of the common prosperity concept can be seen in the fact that it has already provoked a vigorous — and rare — public debate within China, prior to the publication of Xi’s speech.

Several interpretations can be supported from what has been said and done so far. China is moving pragmatically to address the deficiencies of an economic model that has run its course, undertaking necessary reforms that will lay the foundation for its next phase of growth and development. Or: China is turning away from the formula that underpinned its spectacular economic ascent and condemning itself to a future of subpar growth. Or: The common prosperity campaign is mostly populist grandstanding and will fail to attack the vested interests that are the biggest obstacle to reducing inequality. Or: more.

There is one group that may be spared the cognitive dissonance of struggling with these contradictions: the Communist Party’s Marxist theorists. They, at least, are trained for it.

Author: Matthew Brooker, Bloomberg

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