China free-trade zone spurs hope for reform revival

September 13, 2013
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Deep reforms slowed over the past decade under the conservative President Hu Jintao, despite pleas from China's trade partners/AFP
Deep reforms slowed over the past decade under the conservative President Hu Jintao, despite pleas from China’s trade partners/AFP

, SHANGHAI, Sep 13 – A planned free trade zone in Shanghai is raising hopes that China’s new leaders will revive long stalled economic reforms as they seek to make their mark.

China has become the world’s second largest economy and a driver of global growth thanks to a boom unleashed three decades ago when the Communist Party loosened state control of business and began to embrace the market.

But deep reforms slowed over the past decade under the conservative President Hu Jintao, despite pleas from its trade partners, analysts said.

Some Chinese academics say the free trade zone (FTZ) is on par with the special economic zones China set up in the 1980s and its commitment to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.

However, foreign businesses are waiting for details to see how far-reaching the changes initially limited to the FTZ might be.

“It’s a real try to put some of the reforms into place,” said Stefan Sack, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

“We have been lobbying for some of these reforms for a long time. However, this is not going to change the structure of the country.”

The FTZ scheme comes as hope for political reform dims and Beijing targets foreign firms across a range of industries for alleged overcharging.

But a draft plan seen by AFP shows it goes beyond trade liberalisation to include investment and financial services, and covers 19 distinct sectors.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who took office in March, has seized on the FTZ and made himself its top political patron, seeking to claim it as one of the achievements of his young administration.

“We will explore new ways to open China to the outside world, and Shanghai’s pilot free trade zone is a case in point,” Li wrote in the Financial Times this week.

Although the idea for an FTZ was floated under previous premier Wen Jiabao, there was a belief it would be easier to accomplish after the once in a decade power handover within the ruling party, officials say.

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