Has China left behind traditional fixed growth targets?

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Lou Jiwei, Xi Jinping and Zhou Xiaochuan

“Isn’t it now time for China to abandon the concept of a growth target?”

That was the question I asked Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei this week at the 15th annual China Development Forum, which brings together top Chinese officials and an international delegation of academics, leaders of multilateral organizations, and business executives. Having attended the CDF since former Premier Zhu Rongji initiated it in 2000, I can attest to its role as one of China’s most important platforms for debate. Zhu welcomed the exchange of views at the Forum as a true intellectual test for China’s reformers.

It was in that spirit that I posed my question to Lou, whom I have known since the late 1990’s…I have always found him to be direct, intellectually curious, a first-rate analytical thinker, and a forward-looking advocate of market-based reforms. He is cut from the same cloth as his mentor, Zhu…

While it may seem like splitting hairs, continuing to frame the economic goal as a target sends a message of determined and explicit guidance that now seems at odds with the government’s market-oriented intentions. Wouldn’t dropping the concept send a far more powerful message? Isn’t it time for China to let go of the last vestiges of its centrally planned past?

Lou’s response: “Good question.”

China, he went on, is in fact moving away from its once single-minded emphasis on growth targeting. The government now stresses three macroeconomic goals – job creation, price stability, and GDP growth. And, as evidenced by the annual “work report” that the premier recently submitted to China’s National People’s Congress, the current emphasis is in that order, with GDP growth at the bottom of the list…

This is particularly relevant in light of the important threshold that has now been reached by the structural transformation of the Chinese economy – the long-awaited shift to a services-led growth dynamic. Services, which now account for the largest share of the economy, require close to 30% more jobs per unit of output than the manufacturing and construction sectors combined. In an increasingly services-led, labor-intensive economy, China’s economic managers can afford to be more relaxed about a GDP slowdown…

RTFA. Few economists have the experience, personal knowledge of Stephen Roach on China. I mentioned in a recent post about the fight against corruption that economics and commerce fit more into my personal interests. You may find the topics dull as a hoe handle; but, if you haven’t curiosity about what’s going on in the whole world and how events will affect your own life – you may as well settle back and let some priest or pundit run your life.

Here’s where Doctor Roach ends up on this particular occasion. For more, read his latest book, Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the early 1980’s, less and less attention has been paid to the numerical targets of central planning…China’s most senior fiscal and monetary policymakers – Lou Jiwei and Zhou Xiaochuan – are close to taking the final step in the long journey to a market-based economy. Their shared interpretation of flexible growth targeting puts them basically in the same camp as policymakers in most of the developed world. The plan is now a goal-setting exercise. From now on, fluctuations in the Chinese economy, and the policy responses that those fluctuations imply, need to be considered in that vein.

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