Redesigning the Dragon Financial Reform in the Peoples Republic of China

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Redesigning the Dragon

Financial Reform in the Peoples Republic of China

Duncan Marsh

Anna Pawul

Dmitri Maslitchenko

V550, Government Finance in the Transitional Economies

21 November, 1996

In 1978, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) embarked on the enormous undertaking of opening its doors to the outside world. Until this point in time, the PRC had relied on a centralized economic system much like that of the former Soviet Union. However, the PRC’s situation differed with the former Soviet Union in three substantial ways 1) although reforms followed the Cultural Revolution (which did exact its toll on the Chinese economy) there was an absence of severe macroeconomic crises when reforms were begun 2) agricultural infrastructure was good, although the incentives were poor and 3) China had a strong presence of overseas Chinese and Hong Kong that influence its economic development and over the years supplied capital and human resources.

The industrialization strategy adopted by the PRC has been characterized by gradualism and experimentation. Its focus has been to introduce market forces, reduce mandatory planning, decentralize, and open the economy to foreign investment and trade. This strategy had three main stages. The first (1979-1983) established four “Special Economic Zones” (areas awarded special freedoms to conduct business relatively free of the authorities intervention) in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, the second (1984-1987) added 14 port cities creating the “Economic Development Zones”, and finally the third stage (1988-present) which opened most of the country to foreign trade and created “tariff free zones”. In the rural areas, land reforms spearheaded further reforms and also the establishment of Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs). These enterprises were able to capitalize on the abundant cheap labor in rural areas and to operate without the burden of providing social spending. They also provided a training ground for the learning of market skills and concepts. Today, production of manufactured goods by rural and township enterprise is estimated to account for more than 40% of the GDP.

In many respects, China’s process of economic reform has been highly successful.

Since its inception, the average GDP growth has been a world-leading 9.3% year, the poverty rate has declined 60%, and 170 million Chinese living in absolute poverty have seen their standard of living raised above the minimum poverty level. Export growth was 7.8% in 1993, 29% in 1994 and 34.7% in 1995. Government measures to control inflation, which had threatened to overheat the economy in the early 1990s, seem to have taken effect: inflation was under 15% in 1995. (See Tables 1 and 2.)

Table 1.

Source: EIU Country Report, China/Mongolia, 3rd Quarter 1996. The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Table 2.

Source: EIU Country Report, China/Mongolia, 3rd Quarter 1996. The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Chinese economic reform has one other characteristic that sets it apart from that of the former Soviet Union, the absence of democratic reforms. The current transition is being carried out within the “socialist framework” and for the most part is centrally controlled. Much of the world waited to see whether the economic transition would derail after the Tiananmen incident in 1989; it did not. However China did seem to be looking for a way of separating itself from reforms and democratic upheaval that were happening in the former Soviet Union. In 1992, Deng Xiao Ping toured the southern economic zones - a journey significant for its highly symbolic approval of the reform and investment efforts he witnessed - and coined the phrase “socialist market economy”. Deng emphasized that this transition must promote the development of productivity, strengthen the national power and improve people’s standard of living, stating that, “..with all these achievements secure, our socialist foundation is greatly strengthened..”.

Within this backdrop, we will take a closer look at the system of reforms currently underway in the People’s Republic of China. This year marks the beginning of the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000). Examining the individual parts (the budget process, public expenditure, taxes, banking, the interaction between central and provincial governments, and the emerging need to transform the social safety net) will present a clearer picture of what has been accomplished by the macroeconomic reforms put in place in 1976 as well as what still needs to be done.