WHATEVER image you may have of the reformists hoping to shake up China’s creaking economic system, it is probably not one of octogenarians who fiddle with their hearing aids and take afternoon naps. But that is a fair description of three of the country’s loudest voices for change: Mr Market, Mr Shareholding and the most radical of all, the liberal. With growth slowing, the stockmarket once again in trouble and financial risks looking more ominous, their diagnoses of the economy, born of decades of experience, are sobering.
Wu Jinglian, Li Yining and Mao Yushi—their real names—were born within two years of each other in 1929 and 1930 in Nanjing, then China’s capital. Whether it was that or pure coincidence, all three grew up to demand an end to Soviet-style central planning and to propose, to varying degrees, capitalism in its place. Their influence has waned with age, but their powers of analysis remain sharp. And they do not much like what they see.
Mr Wu is in some ways the most important of the group. He advised the government from the earliest years of China’s “reform and opening” in the 1980s, through the 1990s when the great China boom got under way (see timeline). He proposed that the Communist Party should declare China a “socialist market economy”, a twist of words (and a hugely controversial one—conservatives abhorred any positive mention of markets) that opened the door to private enterprise.
But Mr Market, as he came to be called, thinks this kind of linguistic ruse has outlived its usefulness. Imprecise concepts have led to flawed actions, he warns. Though the private sector has flourished over the past couple of decades, the state still looms large, controlling financial flows and acting as gatekeeper for virtually all important decisions, from land deals to mergers. “Even a low-level bureaucrat can decide the life or death of a company. You need to listen to the party,” says Mr Wu, who now teaches at the China Europe International Business School in Beijing.
Mr Wu notes contradictions in the official blueprint for reforming state-owned firms. The party promises to empower their boards, but still wants to retain authority over the appointment of top executives. “If you can’t solve this problem, it will be very difficult to develop effective corporate governance,” he says. Mr Wu argues that political change is now needed to shore up the economy: the government must stop meddling in markets and instead focus on developing the rule of law. Holding up a copy of his recent book, he chuckles softly. “All my ideas are in here. No one pays them much attention.”
Getting heard is less of a problem these days for Li Yining, who has spent his entire academic career at Peking University. His former pupils include Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister. His big idea in the 1980s was that selling partial stakes in state-owned companies to the public would improve their performance—hence his nickname, Mr Shareholding. The party eventually took his advice, though the companies remain hugely inefficient.
In diagnosing the problems of today, Li Yining is blunt: the previous few years of ultra-high-speed growth “did not accord with economic laws”. China wasted natural resources, damaged its environment, piled up excess capacity and missed opportunities to fix its economic model. Yet perhaps because of his connections to those in power, Mr Li is by far the most sanguine of the old guard of reformers. “The new normal”—President Xi Jinping’s favourite economic slogan—is shifting the economy in the right direction, by aiming for lower growth and structural changes.
Mao Yushi disagrees. And unlike many economists cowed by a frostier political climate, he is unafraid to say so. Mr Mao started his career in the railway system, including a spell driving trains, before retraining as an economist in the 1970s. Always on the margins of Chinese academia, he founded the Beijing-based Unirule Institute of Economics in 1993, an independent think-tank (a rarity in China). He champions deregulation and courts controversy in his criticism of Mao Zedong’s disastrous rule. Some diehard Maoists call the softly spoken economist “Mao Yu-shit” online, playing on a homonym of his name.
In Mr Mao’s view it is already too late for the economy. China has too many empty homes and its banks have too much bad debt. “A crisis cannot be averted,” he says. Mr Mao allows himself some optimism, however. The young generation is educated and open-minded. The waste of capital and resources of recent years implies that China still has good potential for growth, if it can operate more efficiently. But he believes that Mr Xi, while espousing reform, is strengthening the state’s economic grip. “He has the power and the determination to fix problems, but in many cases he does not properly understand the problems,” says Mr Mao.
Such unvarnished, open criticism of Mr Xi is rare in China these days. Speaking in the living room of his apartment, its walls stacked high with books and yellowing newspapers, Mr Mao says that his age and experience give him, and the other elderly reformists, a bit of leeway. “If it was someone else speaking, they would probably be arrested. But to me, the government is polite.” If only it would pay more heed to the elders’ advice, too. SCMP