Interpreting China’s policy reversals

What should we make of China’s recent and dramatic policy reversals? Not only did the government summarily abandon its strict Covid policies in December, it has also dropped years of restrictions on the real estate sector. Officials are taking a softer line on internet platform companies, targets of the regulatory crackdown in 2021, and even adopting a marginally less confrontational stance in foreign policy. All of these now-abandoned positions had once been considered key political priorities of top leader Xi Jinping.

So what does it mean that he is doing things so much differently than just a few months ago? Here are four of the leading interpretations that I’ve heard:

Don’t get fooled again. The professional China-watching community is nearly unanimous in its view that all of these policy shifts are merely short-term tactical adjustments to get the economy back on track and restore public and investor confidence after the missteps of 2021-22. According to this view, Xi faces no constraints on his power as he begins a third term heading a government packed with officials he has personally selected for loyalty. Nor is there any evidence that his ambitious long-term goals–of greater global stature and influence for China, a strong national security state, and technological self-sufficiency–have changed.

The recent “pragmatic” focus on economic growth and stabilization is therefore likely to be just a phase. The more political priorities, which were such a feature of Xi’s second term, will return to prominence soon enough. Neil Thomas has a careful example of this analysis over at ChinaFile, and Bill McCahill a more cynical one at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

A more benevolent dictator. These skeptical takes are being advanced mostly to counter the euphoria in financial markets unleashed after China’s abandonment of its Covid controls. A more optimistic school of thought contends that while Xi’s power is indeed untrammeled, his priorities have shifted after three years of economic and market disruption. The policy reversals on multiple fronts are seen as evidence that Xi can course correct, and will continue pursuing a more pragmatic and markets-friendly agenda in the future. For instance, former Morgan Stanley strategist Ruchir Sharma argued in an an FT column that the policy shifts show that Xi is “willing to reform, at least in the depths of a crisis.”

Of course we have no way of knowing what Xi “really” thinks, and whether the current priorities are a tactical feint or a strategic shift. But it’s not out of the question that Xi has in fact just changed his mind. We do know that Xi has in fact changed course on economic policy lots of times, so changing course again is not in itself a shocker. After all, one of the benefits of having absolute power is that you don’t have to worry about consistency.

Furthermore, Xi probably cares more about maintaining his own power and control over elite politics than about the details of various policies. Since his control over the system and key personnel looks secure after the 20th Party Congress, he can be flexible about specific policies. The implication of this view is that Xi is less ideological than sometimes portrayed, and just does what is needed to preserve the power and authority of his government.

The new technocrats. A variant of this interpretation gives credit for the policy pivot more to Xi’s lieutenants. The argument is that while the new leadership team he put in place at the Party Congress was generally portrayed as a bunch of incompetent sycophants in the Western press, in reality they are effective, competent and broadly business-friendly.

Since Xi is confident in their loyalty, he trusts them to do what is necessary, even if that means having to tolerate some embarrassing policy reversals. And because Xi isn’t fighting all the time with Li Keqiang, who kept trying to promote his own agenda, actual policymaking will end up being more sensible. This interpretation suggests that while Xi’s long-term policy priorities of national security and technological self-sufficiency will still be a major focus of government policy, they can be implemented in a less disruptive way than in recent years.

A quiet revolt. There is also a more radical interpretation than any of these: that policies are changing not because Xi’s own priorities have changed, either temporarily or permanently, but because his power has been diminished. The repeated cycles of forced obedience to top-down political campaigns, the enormous costs of the ever-stricter Covid controls, and and ultimately the near-collapse of the economy have, on this view, discredited Xi’s program and cost him authority.

Of course, he remains formally at the apex of the system, but his ability to enforce his views on the country has been diminished, and other people are quietly making more key decisions. The clearest evidence for this view is the way local governments started giving up on the whole system of Covid controls before receiving considered top-down instructions to do so. Anne Stevenson-Yang, always a thoughtful if jaundiced observer, says: “something very important has happened politically to reverse Xi’s power…I think there has been some kind of quiet internal revolt against Xi Jinping’s personal rule.”

I’m not yet a fully paid-up subscriber to any of these schools of thought.

The consensus view, that Xi is executing a short-term tactical correction while keeping his longer-term agenda basically unchanged, certainly has logic and much evidence on its side. But it’s also a product of a type of analysis, based mainly on careful reading of Party documents, that completely failed to anticipate the dramatic shifts in actual policies. That failure argues for giving more consideration to how feedback from economic conditions, public opinion and lower-level enforcement affect high-level policy decisions.

At the moment, I’m leaning toward an interpretation that combines some elements from all of these theories. I do feel that the reversal of Covid policies was a major political event for China. Although the suppression strategy actually worked for a while, by mid-2022, the evolution of new and super-transmissible subvariants made it no longer practical. The central government’s attempt to force local authorities and the populace at large to keep enforcing what had become unenforceable measures discredited both the policies and the decision-making behind them.

Perhaps the man at the top recognized that the center’s ability to enforce compliance with its dictates was at risk, and if the gap between rhetoric and reality became too wide it would expose dangerous weakness. Rather than try to force the bureaucracy to do things people really didn’t want to do, and risk failure, it was better to instead focus on the things that everyone wants and can agree on, like stabilizing the economy.

It’s not a complete course reversal. Some parts of Xi’s recent agenda do have widespread support, like reducing technological reliance on the US. But some other parts, like the common prosperity push, do not. So that’s why we see the most recent rhetoric emphasizing the former and downplaying the latter: it’s an effort to emphasize consensus within the bureaucracy and re-establish compliance. But because norms of authority are unsettled, the longer-term trajectory probably hasn’t yet been locked in. Depending on how the internal political maneuverings evolve from here, maybe this could be a sustained course correction. Or not.

One Comment

  1. The reversal of the tech crackdown was probably the easiest and most sensible. As was the covid reversal. But the larger problem China faces is the construction sector. How do you view this reversal? Of all the U turns this feels like it has the shortest duration as a growth juicer. I can’t see them wanting property price appreciation from already unpalatable levels. So the U turn here seems more about stabilising the sector and preventing further deterioration. That doesn’t solve the problem though and the weight this can have on the wider economy will linger for a long time.


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