China’s annual legislative session, which closed last week, was not a particularly newsworthy event despite being the subject of many news stories. It featured many unedifying public displays of loyalty to General Secretary Xi Jinping, and even less dissent and debate than than usual.
In the current Chinese climate where frank discussion of economic problems and constructive criticism of economic policy is very rare, the intervention during the session by former SOE executive Fu Chengyu was I thought fairly noteworthy. Fu previously ran two of China’s biggest SOEs, CNOOC and Sinopec, and was widely considered an effective, forward-looking and market-oriented executive.
It’s not surprising that Fu is critical of the current program of state-owned enterprise reform; just about everyone who has looked at it has come away pretty depressed. What’s interesting is that he is both willing and able to speak his mind. The following is my translation of his statement on March 9, as reported by Xinhua (the Chinese original is here); it’s a bit dense with Chinese policy jargon, but the main thrust is still pretty clear I think.
1. We cannot confuse reforming the supervision of state assets and enterprises with the reform of state enterprises themselves, and we cannot use reform of the supervision of state assets and enterprises to replace state-enterprise reform.
Today there are some prominent and widespread phenomena in the national implementation of state-enterprise reform. The first is a focus on reforming the supervision of state assets and enterprises, and a weakening of the reform of state enterprises’ own management and operational systems. In some places this supervisory reform has replaced enterprise reform. The second is that the Third Plenum’s call for a transition from “managing state assets” to “managing state capital” has been weakened. The third is that “mixed ownership reform” is seen as a restricted area, and so reform is excessively timid and cautious. The fourth is that internal reforms for the vast majority of state enterprises, particularly reforms to allow the market to play a decisive role in the allocation of resources, have basically not gotten off the ground. Lots of people are watching from the sidelines and not many people are doing anything; most enterprises are waiting and few enterprises are actually trying something.
2. It is not clear who should be the main actor in state-enterprise reform, and an impetus for reform is lacking among enterprises. First, in terms of reform implementation, different levels of government have in reality already become the main driver of reform, while enterprises are just implementing the reforms. When enterprises are not fully participating in the design and planning of reforms, it is difficult to be optimistic about the results. Second, reform in fact means innovation, and innovation cannot be ordered from the top down, but must be explored from the bottom up. Regulatory agencies cannot control every aspect of reform, and cannot just issue a lot of documents to direct state-enterprise reform. Third, because the agency for reform has been moved up to the government, this has created a discordant situation: what the government wants to change is very difficult to change, while what enterprises want to change they dare not change.
3. We lack an environment that protects enterprise leaders who undertake reform, so state-enterprise executives have many concerns about reform. In surveys a very common reaction is heard: “if I do a good job I get no recognition, if I do a bad job I get a bad assessment; if there is a conflict I have no protection, if there’s a problem it’s my responsibility; if I do a lot there are a lot of problems, so not doing anything is the best option.” …
Therefore I suggest the following:
First, clarify the main actors in reform and highlight the main goals of reform. The principle of the separation of ownership rights and operation rights should be followed to allocate responsibility for state-enterprise reform. The regulatory agencies at different levels of government are the owner’s representative for state-owned assets and have regulatory responsibility for state-owned assets and state-owned enterprises, so they should be the main driver for reforming supervision of state assets and state enterprises. State-owned enterprises are the responsible authority for operating state-owned assets, so they should be the main driver for reforming operation and management, and should take responsibility for state-enterprise reform. I suggest that the regulatory agencies at different levels of government delegate authority for reforms internal to state enterprises to the enterprises themselves. Government agencies can handle the overall direction and principles, and be in charge of supervision. Enterprises should be allowed to draft their own reform plans, in accordance with national laws and regulations and relevant policies on state-enterprise reform, so that responsibility for reform passes to enterprises and their executives.
Second, create an environment that creates incentives for reform and protects those who take the initiative. The glorious achievements of state enterprises over more than 30 years of reform, and the important contribution of enterprise leaders to state enterprises’ development, should be fully affirmed. Policies to encourage and protect enterprise leaders who undertake daring reforms should be drafted, to create a specific, feasible, and fault-tolerant system. I also suggest that auditing, disciplinary and personnel agencies develop related policies to incentivize reform and protect initiative in their respective areas.
Third, focus on making breakthroughs in mixed-ownership reform. The Central Economic Work Conference proposed mixed-ownership reform as an important opening for a breakthrough in state-enterprise reform, and this is very significant. I suggest that the scope of enterprises in trials of mixed-ownership reform be expanded, and that the current trials of mixed-ownership reform at third-tier subsidiaries be expanded to second-tier subsidiaries and even to the group level. This will increase the dynamism of state enterprises’ own reforms, and also show China’s efforts at deepening reform; it will also attract large amounts of private capital back to the real economy, thereby lowering financial risk.
None of Fu’s proposed changes are particularly revolutionary, but they still prompted rather hyperbolic praise from Li Jin, a prominent commentator on SOE reform, which I interpret as relief that rational criticism and policy discussion still seem to be possible:
If our delegates all spoke as directly as Fu Chengyu, pulling together public opinion so that the soul of the people can develop, then there would be great hope for China’s state-enterprise reform, and the dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will eventually be fulfilled. I hope China will have more heroes of reform like Fu Chengyu.