Saturday 20 January 2018

China in high-stakes move to deliver economic miracle

Malcolm Moore in Beijing

As Beijing's arid summer turned to autumn, Zhang Jianyi packed the suitcases of her 16-year-old son, Fei, and took him to the railway station for a 900-mile journey south.

Fei, an average student but a keen basketball player and artist, was born and raised in China's capital. But because of an arcane piece of bureaucracy left over from the heyday of hardline Communism, he now has to go to senior school in the county where his parents were born, deep in the countryside.

"He does not know the area at all," his 43-year-old mother said. "Of course we used to go back every Chinese new year to visit our relatives, but he never liked it: there is no heating and he complained about the food because they eat rice down there and we eat noodles up here in Beijing."

Fei is enrolled in a state-run boarding school, while his parents and brother will continue to live in Beijing.

Underneath the image of vibrant modernity that China likes to project to the world, behind the bullet trains and skyscrapers, everyday life continues to be grindingly and frustratingly governed by countless such Kafkaesque regulations.

Millions of working hours are wasted applyin for permits, ticking boxes and searching for loopholes in China's enormous, corrupt bureaucracy. But, increasingly, armed with the internet, greater affluence and self-confidence, the public is pushing back.

This weekend, the new Chinese leadership, under Xi Jinping, the president, is working on a plan that many hope will sweep away some of the state's overbearing control and re-energise an economy that is starting to slow.

The meeting is secret. No one will know its outcome until a document is delivered, via the state media, on Tuesday. Any disagreements among the 376 attendees, all members of the Communist Party's Central Committee, will not be aired.

They have gathered in the Jingxi hotel, run by the People's Liberation Army and surrounded by what one minister described as a "security moat". Members of the public are not permitted inside the hotel, and as the meetings began yesterday dozens of protesters, who had come to Beijing to air their grievances, were arrested.

The job of the meeting, known as the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee, is to set a road map for the economy under the country's new leadership – to try to give China another boost on its path towards overtaking the US as the world's largest economy.

China has averaged 10 per cent growth since it began liberalising its economy in 1978, and, on a purchasing power parity basis, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes China's GDP could surpass the US as early as 2016.

But there remains a delicate and difficult job ahead. During the past decade, under the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, important planned reforms have been cautiously shelved in case they destabilised the country.

On the table are discussions over whether to allow farmers the chance to sell their land, a change that could see China embrace modern, large-scale farming, and how to change the tax system to give local governments more sustainable budgets.

There is also a broad push for state-owned companies, which still dominate Chinese life, to be dismantled or at least forced into professional management. The financial sector could also see increased liberalisation.

The stakes are high. Until now, opponents of the Communist Party often protested for greater justice, but rarely called for revolt. But two terrorist attacks in as many weeks in the lead-up to the Plenum could be the first signs of how frustration at the government has hardened into despair and destruction.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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