Bottom Line: Sai Weng’s Lost Horse
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted governance. Beyond the health crisis, governments the world over are intervening to stabilize their economies amid the worst economic shock since the 1930s. So how are we to assess China’s economic reform progress today when there are so many crosscurrents? Is yesterday’s statist sin today’s stabilization solution?
In decades past, and again at the November 2013 Third Plenum meeting that set out the Xi Jinping–era economic strategy, Beijing had determined that China’s interests required greater economic efficiency, even if that meant relinquishing some stability. But as we have documented in this Dashboard, in recent years reforms have mostly been dialed back or put off indefinitely, particularly when pursuing reform led to disruptions. Having failed to reform is not a blessing in disguise; it has not left the Communist Party with more levers of control. Reform was needed because the levers were working less effectively over time, with growth more and more dependent on debt. Past delays limit the options for Beijing now when they are needed most, swelling unemployment and property and banking system risks.
There is an enduring hope that crises foster reform. As in the old Chinese proverb about an old man’s misfortune in losing a horse leading to good outcomes, an economic morass could have the hidden benefit of leading to better policy. Sometimes crises do promote reform, but will that apply in China today? Sometimes a lost horse is, after all, just a lost horse.