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China's Grand and Empty Rhetoric

Actions are louder than words. They're much harder too...

THIS WEEK is all about elections, non-elections, and power struggles, writes Greg Canavan at the Daily Reckoning Australia.

And as one election ends, another non-election comes into view. The Western media is all over a speech given by China's outgoing President Hu Jintao at the 18th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China. As you probably know, the Chinese leadership is gearing up for a major handover of power in the next week. The streets of Beijing will be running with rhetorical drool.

This was a speech worthy of a campaigning Democrat or Republican...full of rhetoric and grand plans, but completely devoid of detail.

Funnily enough, much of the Western commentary on the speech seemed surprised that Mr Hu reasserted the primacy of the Communist Party, and interpreted it as a return to conservatism and a rejection of reform.

We would argue that it couldn't be any other way. This past year has been one of the most tumultuous in history for the Communist Party. Rapid economic growth and the unintended consequences of an historic credit boom have weakened the Party's grip on power like never before.

The huge amount of credit flowing through the system incentivized corruption and the creation of 'fiefdoms', from which party members could establish and build power bases. This is what happened with Bo Xilai, party boss of Chongqing province. But he got a little too big for his boots and is now facing jail time.

This blatant corruption in the upper echelons of the Party, as well as the uneven nature of China's breakneck economic growth, has radicalized the population to an extent not seen in decades. Increasing protests at a local level have been an unwanted side effect of China's growth.

So it's no surprise that Mr Hu wants to bring the focus back on the party and its ability to control and manage China's economic destiny. In his speech, he said the party and government 'should steadily enhance the vitality of the state-owned sector of the economy and its capacity to leverage and influence the economy.'

He also unveiled a target to double per-capita incomes by 2020, implying China will achieve 7% growth (on average) over the next eight years. It's the sort of feel good targets any politician would unveil on the way out the door (Hu will hand over the Presidency next week).

Continuing with the 'we should' theme, Mr Hu wants to 'unleash the potential of individual consumption' and liberalize China's currency and interest rate markets.

These are almost mutually exclusive wishes. Increasing consumption will come at the expense of investment spending. China's household sector has inadvertently financed its infrastructure boom. So turning China's savers into spenders would take away the fuel for the investment spending.

Economic rebalancing isn't just a case of saying 'we should do this or that'. It involves trade-offs and real movement of capital, which has flow on effects and unintended consequences.

This is a momentous occasion for China's outgoing and incoming leaders. Over the next week they're going to say whatever sounds acceptable to their people and state and Western media will duly report on it as if it were gospel.

But as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And as China's new leadership will find out in the next few years, actions are much harder than words, too.

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Greg Canavan is editorial director of Fat Tail Investment Research and has been a regular guest on CNBC, ABC and BoardRoomRadio, as well as a contributor to publications as diverse as and the Sydney Morning Herald.

See the full archive of Greg Canavan.

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