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Reforming China’s State-Market Balance

BEIJING – No country in recorded history has grown as fast – and moved as many people out of poverty – as China over the last thirty years. A hallmark of China’s success has been its leaders’ willingness to revise the country’s economic model when and as needed, despite opposition from powerful vested interests. And now, as China implements another series of fundamental reforms, such interests are already lining up to resist. Can the reformers triumph again?

In answering that question, the crucial point to bear in mind is that, as in the past, the current round of reforms will restructure not only the economy, but also the vested interests that will shape future reforms (and even determine whether they are possible). And today, while high-profile initiatives – for example, the government’s widening anti-corruption campaign – receive much attention, the deeper issue that China faces concerns the appropriate roles of the state and the market.

When China began its reforms more than three decades ago, the direction was clear: the market needed to play a far greater role in resource allocation. And so it has, with the private sector far more important now than it was. Moreover, there is a broad consensus that the market needs to play what officials call a “decisive role” in many sectors where state-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate. But what should its role be in other sectors, and in the economy more generally?

Many of China’s problems today stem from too much market and too little government. Or, to put it another way, while the government is clearly doing some things that it should not, it is also not doing some things that it should.