China to prioritise its reform plans

CHINA - Reform and implementation - these two words will sum up the significance of the upcoming meetings of China's national parliament and top political advisory body, say analysts.

They add that the highlight will be Premier Li Keqiang's government work report - summing up achievements in the past year and laying out new steps to carry out the 60 reform tasks pledged by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last November at its policy summit.

The pledges - which were made at the party's third plenum and are targeted to achieve results by 2020 - include giving the markets a bigger role in the economy, and also wide-ranging reforms in the judiciary, military and environment protection.

"Many of these reforms are set for the long term, but most people are anxious to know which ones will get top priority, depending on the details and extent of implementation unveiled at the meetings," said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.

The national sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a senate-like advisory body, begin tomorrow, followed by those of the National People's Congress (NPC) two days later, where Mr Li will give his first work report as premier.

The sessions, known as liang hui, or "two meetings", will involve about 2,232 national delegates for the CPPCC and 2,984 for the NPC, and will end around March 13.

Sydney-based analyst Kerry Brown described the liang hui as "another high-profile moment" for the leadership to give more details on their reform strategy and how they intend to implement it over the coming year.

"It will also give some knowledge about their ideas on the 13th Five-Year Plan, which is starting to be discussed for its launch in 2016," he told The Sunday Times.

China's five-year plans serve as economic and social blueprints.

President Xi Jinping, speaking last Friday at a meeting of the leading small group on deepening reforms, also stressed the importance of this year's reforms at the liang hui, even though there are still seven years to fulfil the targets.

"The starting of a race decides the second half of the race, and implementation is the key for effectively deepening reforms," Mr Xi reportedly said.

More specifically, Professor Liu Junsheng, a public administration expert at the China University of Political Science and Law, said he expects to see Mr Li unveil more steps to reduce the state's role in the economy.

"We could see further trimming of the bureaucracy and red tape so as to give the markets a bigger role," he added.

Given the smog problem confronting Beijing and surrounding regions in the past week, Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong believes that the meetings will see "many delegates raising the environmental problem and the government announcing new steps or more money for this area".

He thinks the NPC meetings will also produce more details on the job scope of the proposed National Security Commission announced at the plenum.

One possibility would be if an identical outfit is set up within the government, similar to how the Central Military Commission exists in both the party and the state apparatus.

However, some are not hopeful of big strides towards fulfilling the reform tasks.

University of California, San Diego analyst Barry Naughton noted that after a good start at the third plenum, "implementation in recent months has been slow".

"My expectations for the NPC are not high. We should see some restructuring of the fiscal system, but hopes for a major breakthrough seem to be fading," he told The Sunday Times.

He said key areas like financial reform or reform of the state-owned enterprises are unlikely to see major measures passed by the NPC.

For instance, he said in the area of financial reform, the major issues are about monetary and credit policy, which do not urgently require legislation.

Still, observers said Mr Li's work report is worth watching for clues of him trying to assert himself in the shadow of an increasingly dominant Mr Xi.

For instance, a Chinese premier usually plays a prominent role at the third plenum, which usually focuses on economic matters that come within his ambit and not that of the CCP general secretary.

But Mr Xi overshadowed Mr Li at the plenum by heading a team that drafted the 60 reform task blueprint.

He also emerged as the most powerful CCP chief in recent decades as the head of two new party organs - the National Security Commission and the leading small group on the comprehensive deepening of reforms.

Professor Lam said while Mr Xi clearly espouses a top-down leadership, Mr Li is known to prefer the "small government, big market" approach.

"There is interest in seeing whether Li will attempt to strike a different approach from Xi," he added.

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