How Hwee Young, Pool, File, Associated Press
BEIJING — China's economic model that delivered three decades of double-digit growth is running out of steam and the country's next leaders face tough choices to keep incomes rising. But they don't seem to have ambitious solutions. Even if they do, they will need to tackle entrenched interests with backing high in the Communist Party.
The cost of inaction could be high. The World Bank says without change, annual growth could sink to 5 percent by 2015 — dangerously low by Chinese standards. Some private sector analysts give even gloomier warnings.
The government's own advisers say it needs to promote service industries and consumer spending, shifting away from reliance on exports and investment. That will require opening more industries to entrepreneurs and forcing cosseted state companies to compete. State banks would have to lend more to private business that is starved for credit.
The ruling party's latest five-year development plan promises reforms in broad terms. Premier Wen Jiabao apologized at a news conference in March for not moving fast enough and vowed quicker action. But many changes could face opposition from China's most influential factions — state companies, their allies in the party, bureaucrats and local leaders.
"If the challenge is, can they do radical reform all at once, we know that won't happen because these leaders aren't powerful enough," said Scott Kennedy, director of Indiana University's Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business in Beijing. "They are facing interests which wouldn't possibly allow that to occur."
Also at issue is how much Communist Party leaders are willing to cut back state industry that provides jobs and money to underpin the party's monopoly on power.
Li Keqiang is the man in line to lead reforms as the next premier, China's top economic official. Now a vice premier, Li is seen as a political insider with an easygoing style, not a hard-driving reformer. Along with the rest of the party's Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle due to be installed in November, Li will govern by consensus, which could blunt their force.
"They are under pressure to change the economy, but they will not demolish party control," said Mao Yushi, an 83-year-old economist who is one of China's most prominent reform advocates. He co-founded the Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent think tank in Beijing.
Li showed his political skills but little zeal for reform as governor and later party secretary of populous Henan province in 1998-2004.
His time there coincided with several fatal fires — including a Christmas Day blaze at a nightclub in 2000 that killed 309 people — and efforts by local officials to suppress information about the spread of AIDS by a blood-buying industry. Other officials were punished for the fires but Li emerged unscathed and rose to national office.
"Li was known for not acting very aggressively in Henan, to put it charitably," said Dali Yang, a University of Chicago political scientist.
The man in line to become Communist Party leader and China's president, Xi Jinping, has a similar reputation for successful inaction.
In the 1990s, he served as party secretary of Zhejiang province, a thriving center for private business south of Shanghai, and won praise from observers including former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who dealt with him as an investment banker. They lauded him not for spearheading change but for not tampering with Zhejiang's free-market success.
The next leadership will inherit one of the world's strongest economies but one in which advocates say reform is stalled.
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