Modern central banking in the modernization drive

Shortly after being reappointed as the governor of China’s central bank, Yi Gang gave a speech in Beijing with the rather dull title of “Building a Modern Central Banking System to Contribute to Chinese Modernization.” As is obligatory with the speeches of most Chinese officials, it opens and concludes with references to the important decisions of the Communist Party and the major slogans of the moment.

The key term in the title of the speech is one of these coinages from Xi Jinping: the more precise translation would be Chinese-style modernization (中国式现代化), as it refers not simply to the modernization of China but modernization done China’s way. It’s one of the umbrella terms for his overarching project of achieving national greatness.

The bulk of the speech consists of Yi summarizing the central bank’s major policy priorities and justifying how it has pursued them. The temptation for foreign readers is to skip over the political sloganeering at the beginning and end and focus on the technical content in the middle.

Indeed, this was the approach that Yi himself took when he gave a more elaborate version of the same presentation, in English and with charts and references to the economics literature, to an audience in the US. Yi favorably compared the gradualist methods of the People’s Bank of China, which moves interest rates rarely and in small intervals, to the dramatic recent swings in Federal Reserve policy (see the writeup in The Economist for more on this angle).

Yi Gang on April 14, 2023

But abstracting Yi’s speech from the Chinese political context in this way risks blinding us to the some of the significance of what he says. How Yi positions the central bank’s technical policy priorities relative to the overarching goals of the Communist Party leadership is a very important part of his speech. What I think he is doing is nothing less than trying to ensure that modern central banking and financial regulation can be implemented in the Chinese political context.

To maintain political buy-in from the leadership for his preferred policies, Yi needs to convince them that these policies do in fact serve the overarching political goals set by Xi. He starts off his speech by citing the official mandates of the People’s Bank of China, as written in Chinese law. Based on the text of the law, he asserts that

Preserving currency stability and financial stability are the two central tasks of the PBOC. On this point, everyone has increasingly reached a consensus in recent years. By properly accomplishing these two tasks, we can promote full employment and economic growth, which better serves Chinese-style modernization.

That is pretty direct and clear: the traditional goals of the PBOC and the consensus of technical experts are not in conflict with the current political agenda, but actually support it. Yi further elaborates that the concept of currency stability includes stability of consumer prices and stability of the exchange rate, both of which are not only beneficial to the population at large but help the nation achieve long-term goals:

Stable consumer prices and exchange rates serve to safeguard the pocketbooks of consumers, so that the money in their hands won’t depreciate. Fundamentally, this is a people-centered effort to safeguard the interests of the broadest possible majority of the people. …

Price stability and the basic stability of the renminbi exchange rate at an adaptive and equilibrium level provide strong support for us to realize the strategic goal of Chinese-style modernization. 

At the end of the speech, Yi acknowledges that the new agenda laid out by Xi at the Party Congress and other high-level meetings requires at the Party Congress “means new requirements” for the work of central bankers. But fundamentally what he is saying in this speech is that these new requirements can be met by the same old policies. The key ones he highlights in the speech are: a less controlled and more market-determined exchange rate, strict regulation oriented towards preventing financial risk, and a conservative monetary policy biased against dramatic moves.

This emphasis on stability and continuity is probably why Yi’s speech got little attention in the press. He did not propose anything new, and largely emphasized recent accomplishments. But that is the point he wants to make: these policies have been successful in making China stronger, so they should continue. You don’t have to agree that his argument is correct on the merits to understand that he wishes to preserve the PBOC’s autonomy and policy preferences in an era of heightened politicization and grand campaigns.

It’s not hard to imagine how some of Xi Jinping’s priorities could potentially have big implication for macroeconomic policies. He has a vision of a whole-of-society effort to refashion China’s industrial base to make it less vulnerable to external shocks. His “dual circulation” concept calls for reducing China’s economic dependence on the rest of the world while increasing the rest of the world’s economic dependence on China.

To pursue these ideals, some officials could perhaps argue for an aggressively undervalued exchange rate, that keeps exports competitive and deters domestic spending on imports, or a much looser monetary policy, to ensure industrial upgrading has plenty of resources. That stuff hasn’t happened, perhaps because Xi favors strict supervision and control in finance as in other areas. But it’s still an open question how existing macroeconomic policies will adapt to the political requirements of Xi’s so-called “new era.”

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