What Xi talks about when Xi talks about reform


The People’s Daily tried valiantly but in vain to use rap videos to excite us about the Two Sessions, China’s biggest annual political meeting. But alas, the Two Sessions is a ritual full of set-pieces that bores many journalists to tears.

  • Occasionally, the events are livened up by mini scandals. In 2012, China’s internet was scandalized by the expensive luxury clothing worn by some delegates at the annual meeting.
  • In 2014, Chinese and foreign journalists cursed when a question for the “foreign media” was given to a journalist from an Australian media company controlled by the Chinese state.
  • This year has seen a repeat of the planted question from a “foreign” media organization: a journalist from a U.S.-based news media channel named AMTV that is affiliated with China’s CCTV asked a softball question. The reporter sitting next to her rolled her eyes dramatically — visualizing the feeling that Two Sessions and its managed media events produce in many of us.
  • The second reporter’s dismissive facial movements were captured on TV and instantly became an internet meme, in which the first journalist with the softball question is named “question-asking bitch” (提问婊 tíwèn biǎo).

A lot less fun than eye-rolling journalists is the announcement at the Two Sessions of a plan to restructure the ministries and commissions under the State Council, especially organizations that regulate the finance industry and the environment. You can read about these changes in more detail below.

This government reshuffle is so far the most significant news to come out of the Two Sessions after the controversial constitutional amendments that include the removal of presidential term limits.

Evan Feigenbaum of Macro Polo recently argued that to Beijing, “reform” means “market liberalization; administrative measures to increase bureaucratic and operational efficiencies; and a rebalancing of authorities and decision powers among central and local levels of government.”

The government restructuring is happening now, I would argue, because Xi feels powerful enough to disturb entrenched interest groups. If you accept Feigenbaum’s definition of Chinese reform, the departmental rearrangements are a sign that Xi’s reforms are finally on track, even though they will not be to the taste of many observers.

16+1: China changes tack in Central and Eastern Europe

In 2016, China set up a new group called “16+1” — the name refers to the 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe plus China — one of the newest of many multilateral organizations like BRICS and the SCO that China has created or co-opted in the last decade. But 16+1 was always a prickly affair:

  • Many of the 16 Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, have not had smooth relations with the People’s Republic until recently.
  • Each of the 16 have very different relations with Russia, the European Union, and China itself, making it difficult for the multilateral group to come to a consensus on anything. The 16 are: EU members — Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia — and non-EU states — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
  • “China could delay the next ‘16+1’ summit, scheduled for the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, later this year, and hold future meetings every two years instead of on an annual basis,” according to a Reuters article citing “three European diplomats.”
  • Concerns that Beijing is seeking to divide Europe may be one factor in the decision; Beijing is apparently aware of its image problems, and this comes “at a time when the EU is discussing steps to more strictly control corporate takeovers of European firms by Chinese rivals.”
  • Enthusiasm for Chinese-led organizations and Chinese investment “remains strong in non-EU states like Serbia,” according to Reuters, partly because they crave Belt and Road dollars.

To learn more about 16+1, please listen to this Sinica Podcast interview with Martin Hála, a China scholar who heads AcaMedia in Prague.