New indicators expected to evaluate development quality
With economic growth stabilized and a new central leadership installed following the 19th National Party Congress, China is set to map out major shifts in economic policy that could have far-reaching implications beyond 2018.
At this year's Central Economic Work Conference, top policymakers are likely to focus on shifts in priorities to put more focus on quality and stability rather than mere growth, while tackling specific issues such as mounting debt, poverty and pollution, top experts said on Sunday.
The conference will reportedly be held behind closed doors from Monday to Wednesday, with a final policy document expected to be released at the end of the meetings, as is customary. The conference, held annually since 1994, has become a key event as it sets the direction for economic policies for the following year.
"I think this year's conference could be very unique and more important than previous ones. There could be some major, systematic changes in how the government prioritizes economic policies," said Tian Yun, director of the Macroeconomics Research Center's China Society, which is affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning agency.
"China has long been talking about pursuing high-quality, sustainable economic growth, but has made little progress because local governments continue to focus primarily on GDP growth. I think we could see some real policy shifts in 2018 to change that. For example, the central government might come up with new economic indicators to gauge economic development," he told the Global Times on Sunday.
Tian, who advises the government on economic policies, said that if the central government releases a clear set of economic indicators that reflect high-quality and sustainable growth, local governments would take the cue and "a lot of the problems we have now such as rising debt, pollution and imbalanced development would be solved."
Liu Xuezhi, a senior macroeconomic analyst at Bank of Communications, said a new set of economic indicators could put more focus on the environment, people's livelihood and technological innovation.
"If they release one, I suspect that it will be a comprehensive and clear set of indicators that truly reflects the government's long-pursued goals of making the country's economic development more efficient and green," Liu told the Global Times.
Time for action
Both Tian and Liu noted that 2018 is the year to make those changes because the Chinese economy, against all odds, has improved significantly and is on track to meet an average growth target of 6.5 percent through 2020, and the new central leadership is poised to launch a fresh round of governing for the next five years in 2018.
Next year would also mark the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up policy.
"From what we have been hearing from top leaders and key policy documents, I think 2018 is the year to make those changes," Tian said, pointing to a major shift in tone on GDP growth in the report of the 19th National Congress of the Community Party of China (CPC). "This is the first time that a specific growth target was not included in the report, and that says a lot."
In leading up to Monday's conference, top officials have been stressing high-quality growth over speed.
At a meeting with non-CPC representatives on December 6, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, said "high-quality development is the fundamental requirement for determining the development path, making economic policies and conducting macroeconomic regulation at present and in the period to come," the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Xi also made similar remarks at a meeting of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau on December 8, Xinhua reported.
The meetings also sent a clear signal for economic policy priorities for 2018 and beyond, including fending off systemic financial risks by containing rising leverage, further alleviating poverty and preventing and controlling pollution, Xinhua reported.
"All those issues are obviously very important but they could be resolved by changing the government's priority, especially on the local level, from speed of GDP growth to more high-quality, green and balanced growth," Tian said.