Will China target inequality next?

Right on schedule, Chinese officials have declared they have officially met the target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020. The anti-poverty campaign was one of Xi Jinping’s signature initiatives over the past three years. With its focus on the rural poor and neglected regions, the initiative had a more “socialist” flavor compared to Xi’s two other major political campaigns, for environmental cleanup and financial rectitude, which focused on issues of more concern to urban elites.

Now all three of those campaigns are wrapping up, and the bureaucracy is starting to plan a whole new cycle of initiatives for the beginning of the next five-year plan in 2021. So what’s next? What kind of goal or program could meet some of the same political and ideological goals as the anti-poverty campaign? Various official comments and policy documents suggest that China’s government is preparing for a stronger focus on redistribution and reducing inequality, using more specific and quantitative targets than before.

Common prosperity

Xi has laid out the overarching slogan of “achieving socialist modernization” by 2035 to guide the next stage of the government’s planning process. That’s a fairly capacious concept. But as Xi helpfully explained in a November 3 article, one of its main aspects is “promoting common prosperity for all people.”

The phrase “common prosperity” (共同富裕) has very specific connotations in Chinese politics. When Deng Xiaoping famously endorsed inequality in the 1980s by saying “We should let some people and some regions get rich first,” he justified that in purely instrumental terms: it was “for the purpose of achieving common prosperity faster.” The ultimate goal, Deng consistently said, was to achieve common prosperity, not to entrench deep divisions. Inequality would rise initially to allow China to grow more rapidly, then decline later. Since Deng’s original comments, that commitment has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Xi’s rhetorical focus on common prosperity signals that he aims to complete the great task that Deng began, by achieving the final goal that Deng did not.

In his article, Xi highlighted the fact that the “suggestions” for the next five-year plan passed at the Communist Party’s fifth plenum includes the phrase “the common prosperity of all the people will make more significant and substantial progress.” Xi said such a commitment had never been made before in a plenum document, and was a sign that the goal had been elevated in political importance. Although it is expressed somewhat indirectly, the clear meaning of this commitment is to reduce inequality.

Rather awkwardly, however, Xi’s campaign for eliminating extreme poverty coincided with a renewed rise in inequality, as shown by the official Gini index published by the National Bureau of Statistics. Inequality had steadily declined from around 2009 but then started rising again after 2015. For skeptics of Chinese official data, the trend of declining inequality after roughly 2010 is well supported by multiple other sources, so I believe the post-2015 rise or plateau in inequality is also a real phenomenon.

The earlier decline in inequality was mostly driven by a tight labor market that pushed up wages for blue-collar workers. The most likely explanation for the renewed rise in inequality is the reversal of that trend, due to the steady loss of manufacturing jobs in China after the industrial recession of 2014-15. Income inequality is also certain to rise again in 2020, given the huge and highly unequal shock to incomes from the Covid-19 lockdowns, which cost many low-income households weeks and months of lost wages. The anti-poverty campaign does not seem to have had a noticeable effect on overall inequality, probably because it targets relief for such a narrow slice of the total population. That suggests a more vigorous official attempt to reduce inequality will have to take a different approach.

What kind of specific targets might the government set in terms of inequality? The fifth plenum’s communique mentions two goals related to inequality: “achieve equalization of basic public services” (基本公共服务实现均等化) and “significantly narrow the gap in development between urban and rural regions and the gap in residents’ living standards” (城乡区域发展差距和居民生活水平差距显著缩小).

These goals are eminently quantifiable, in terms of the ratio of public spending and incomes in different regions. And in fact at least one government plan has already set such quantitative targets. The Integrated Development Plan for the Yangtze River Delta Region was published in December 2019, so it represents current government thinking before Covid-19 took over everything. In a novel step, the plan targets narrowing inequality between different parts of the region, whose center is defined as Shanghai and other major cities in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces:

By 2025, the income gap between urban and rural residents in the central area will be controlled within 2.2:1, the gap between per capita GDP in the central area and the whole region will be narrowed to 1.2:1, and the urbanization rate of the resident population will reach 70%.

It’s less clear what precise tools the government could use to achieve such reductions in inequality. The associated goal of “equalization of public services” suggests one channel: public expenditures could be raised in lower-income regions to help narrow the income gap. Other policy documents suggests officials are increasingly open to using the tax system to do some redistribution. This would be a big change: while China’s top marginal tax rate is fairly high, the system as a whole is not progressive. Most wage earners are exempt from income tax, and required social security contributions are regressive (see this IMF paper for details).

The discussion of redistribution that happened around the the Communist Party’s fourth plenum in October 2019 also seems to have been quite important. That meeting was mostly ideological in focus, and produced a lot of verbiage about the nature of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” much of which seemed to be a rehash of old slogans. But Han Wenxiu, a senior economic official, said publicly afterward that the meeting’s discussion of distribution was a major “innovation.”

Chinese-style socialism had long been defined as involving the coexistence of state and private ownership, and the coexistence of market incentives and government direction–the systems for the ownership of the means of production and the allocation of resources. The fourth plenum’s decision said that a third system, that of the distribution of income, is equally important: this is the innovation to which Han was referring. The plenum declares that Chinese-style socialism in terms of the distribution system means the coexistence of market-led labor remuneration with redistribution through government and charities.

This is a descriptive statement, not a prescription for any particular type of redistribution. But it nonetheless has political and ideological force because it elevates the mechanisms of income redistribution to a fundamental part of the Chinese system, rather than just technical details. That makes it more important to get the system right. In an article in the People’s Daily after the fourth plenum, Vice Premier Liu He, the nation’s top economic policymaker, articulated the case for a more active use of fiscal policy to redistribute income:

We should improve the redistribution mechanism, using taxation, social security and transfer payments as the main methods to appropriately adjust the distribution between urban and rural areas, regions and different groups. Among these methods, it is very important to strengthen taxation, particularly by improving the system of direct taxes and gradually increasing the share of direct takes, so as to enable taxation to play a better role in adjusting the income distribution.

Liu’s latest missive in the People’s Daily, following this year’s fifth plenum, touches on some of the same themes, but frames them a bit differently. He again calls for using the “redistribution mechanism,” including taxes, social security and transfer payments, to “improve the pattern of the distribution of income and wealth.” But this time he places more emphasis on redistribution as a complement to an overall macro policy that is more favorable to employment and household income:

We should adhere to the orientation of employment-oriented economic development, expand employment capacity, improve employment quality, and promote fuller employment. The expansion of the middle-income group is fundamental to the formation of a strong domestic market and to structural upgrading. We should adhere to the direction of common prosperity, improve the income distribution pattern, expand the middle-income group, and strive to make residents’ income grow faster than the economy.

Taken together, these documents suggest that various parts of China’s bureaucracy have been gearing up to do more to reduce inequality for some time, but that the thinking on how to define and achieve the goal is still evolving. It will not be clear for a few more months just how the “more significant and substantial progress” Xi promised on inequality will be expressed in terms of specific goals or quantifiable targets. I do think it’s more likely that the problem of inequality will be officially defined in regional terms, as inequality among occupational classes and income groups is a more sensitive and difficult issue. And it will take even longer to find out whether inequality will prove amenable to the tools China’s government is able to deploy.

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