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Chinese Communist Party Meeting Promises Big, Yet Vague, Changes



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

China's Communist Party leaders wrapped up a big meeting today on reforming their economy, the world's second-largest, and it comes at a crucial time. The country is trying to transition to a new economic model, one leaders there hope will ensure rapid expansion.

For more of what came out of the meeting, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. And, Frank, first of all, how big a deal is this? And what kind of reforms does the party have in mind?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, it's a very important meeting because it's a turning point for the country, frankly. They need to figure out a whole new economic way of doing business if they're going to keep their success up. In terms of the reforms, a lot of this language is very vague, but I'll give you an example of some things that they're kind of hinting at. One is, they've been talking about reforming what's called the urban residency system here.

There are over 200 million rural migrants in the cities here in China, and they don't get much in the way of health and education benefits. It's not very stable. And what they want to do is start rolling out some of these benefits to these folks. So they'll stay in the cities, they'll get better paying jobs, start spending money, driving the economy. And what they hope to see - economists hope to see in the next year or so is see some pilot programs along these lines.

CORNISH: But how far did it go? Were they are economic reforms people want that were conspicuously absent from today's report?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there really were. It wasn't a surprise, but state-owned enterprises was the thing that was the most conspicuously absent. There are certain sectors, like telecom finance and energy, where big state companies dominate and they're seen - economists see them as a real drag on the economy and a fount of corruption. Because of their monopoly status though, they've got a ton of money, they're very powerful vested interest, and so they're hard politically to go after.

And this is instructive because, you know, as the country has gotten wealthier and wealthier, you now have bigger and bigger vested interest, and it's harder to make change here. It was much easier - if you went back 20, 25 years when the place was poor, nobody had that much levels. It was much easier to do bold reform back then.

CORNISH: Now, China has seen such growth over the years. Why reform now? Why new models?

LANGFITT: Economically, the country has had a great run for about three decades. But the world has changed and China has changed, and this is no longer a low-wage country. It's now a middle income country. And it lost that low-wage advantage that made it easy for it to become the workshop of the world.

The other thing is they don't want to get stuck just as a middle income country. There's a lot of rising expectations. You know, you walk around Shanghai, I mean people want an apartment, they want a car, they want to be able to vacation. The Communist Party is going to have to deliver on that for a lot of people if it wants to continue to do well here.

In order to make that leap this has to be a much more efficient and innovative economy. And that's one of the things that the party will be looking at as they move forward this plan, as they try to fine tune it and implement it. That's kind of the direction that they need to go.

CORNISH: So economists, business people, politicians, they're going to be reading this report carefully. But so far, what's the reaction of ordinary people there?

LANGFITT: Well, it's late at night here so you can't really go out on the street and talk to people. But if you look online, there's not that much interest. People kind of complained about the communist jargon. They said it was hard to understand and some things reading the report are kind of unconnected to reality. I'll give you an example. One line was: China must build on the paramount reality that it remains in the primary stage of socialism. Of course, there's the Communist Party. But really, if you're on the streets of Shanghai every day, it feels like a very, very capitalistic place. Before I came over here I was at the Ritz-Carlton where, you know, I saw a red Ferrari in the driveway. So the idea, you know, some of the things that are written here just don't - people just don't really relate to because it doesn't seem based in the environment in which they live.

One of the challenges for the party, as they go forward with these kinds of reports and they try to speak to the country, they need to speak in a language that people can really relate to.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.