Chinese reformers have called for the dismantling of one of the last and biggest walls that cloisters their huge economy from the rest of the world.
A three-step plan published by China’s central bank is the most detailed public proposal yet for loosening the government’s strict capital controls. If implemented as envisaged, the global economic landscape will undergo sweeping changes this decade.
Foreign investors will be much bigger players in Chinese stock and bond markets, which are now largely closed to them. The renminbi will take on a bigger international role, eating into the US dollar’s dominant position. Chinese companies will buy up far more of their US and European peers, which have been weakened by the global financial crisis.
But whether the reform can be implemented as envisaged is the big question. While reformers are pressing for faster change ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this year, that transition itself is expected to disrupt the political system, with officials prising policy stability amid big personnel changes.
“If you think about the political reality, I don’t think that financial market liberalisation will happen in a big bang,” said Zhu Haibin, an economist at JPMorgan.
It is not the first time that capital account liberalisation has been discussed in Beijing. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who set China on its path from Maoism towards a free market, said in 1993 that gradually allowing the renminbi to become a convertible currency was a crucial objective.
Gradual has been the operative word since then. Even as China has flung its doors open to global trade, it has erected vast roadblocks to stymie capital flows. In one indication of the glacial pace of opening, foreign banks manage less than 2 per cent of the assets in China’s financial system.
The country’s capital controls have served it well. It was little harmed by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and has been largely insulated from the global tumult of the past four years.
But there are also problems in maintaining such rigid capital controls. Chinese savers have few investment outlets and plough their money into the property market instead. Perhaps most important from a political standpoint, plans to transform the renminbi into a rival to the dollar have run into difficulty: foreign companies do not want a currency that cannot be invested in its country of origin.
“Internationalisation of the renminbi is now a clear mandate, so resistance for capital account liberalisation has been diminishing,” said Liu Li-gang, an economist at ANZ. “The wind has shifted.”
China’s leaders have given a series of signals in recent months that they want capital account reforms to get into gear.
Li Keqiang, the man likely to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier this year, visited Hong Kong last August and pledged to do more to build it into an offshore market for the renminbi. Then in January, the country’s central planning agency published a road map for turning Shanghai into a global financial centre, achievable only with much more openness to capital flows. Finally, this month Mr Wen reached for a quote from Mr Deng, the arch-reformer, that encouraged those wanting change: “Opening up and reform should be implemented unswervingly, or there will only be a dead- end.”
Yet reform, when it comes, will not be radical.
The central bank proposal was cautious. It was not written by the bank’s governor, nor was it published on its website.
The central bank was also careful not to push its timeline for reform. It will be five years before Beijing opens its stock and bond markets more widely. As for making the renminbi fully convertible, that was declared “the final step” and no deadline was set.
That the strongest voice for reform is still so cautious may disappoint those wanting the country to open up more quickly. But, as Louis Kuijs, a former World Bank economist in Beijing, said: “As someone who is wary of the risks of opening up the capital account, China’s approach makes a lot of sense.”