Political announcements signal a greater role for the market in China

President Xi Jinping's comments at the conclusion of the third plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee signalled greater interest in protecting the private sector - but many risks still remain.

A "deepening" role for the market was proclaimed by China’s ruling elite as it concluded the third plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee. While the final statement predictably lacked specificity, it reinforced the reformist agenda of President Xi Jinping and signalled a gradual diminution of state control of all aspects of the economy in favour market influenced prices.

The importance of the plenum was always about the message it would send about momentum in the reform agenda and the ability of the new leadership to overcome resistance to reform. Beginning with an anti-corruption campaign that effectively discredited political opponents, most notably Bo Xilai, and generated popular support, the government has progressed reforms in foreign direct investment policy and interest rate deregulation. It has also had the confidence to permit an economic slowdown. The board pronouncements from the plenum indicate that this momentum will be sustained.

The report signals the development of a more balanced policy towards the public and private sectors; the maintenance of government to commitment to state owned enterprises combined with the development of "fair, open and transparent" market rules for the economy.

Exceeding expectations, the texts from the plenum show the government understands that systemic reform is a pre-requisite for making China’s economic system more sustainable. Judicial structural reform is called for along with changes to the Party’s internal oversight processes, thereby enhancing the role of central Party authorities. Enhancing the power of the judiciary’s at local levels could provide the government with a more effective mechanism to address corruption and force local implementation of policy directives, which would be positive for reform in the medium to long term.

Impediments posed by the two-tier land ownership system and the concept of equal land rights were also raised. At present, farmers moving to urban areas are unable to sell their land, in contrast to urban dwellers who are able to buy and sell property. It is anticipated that the distinction between urban and rural land will be abolished, a significant reform, that will take China a step further towards an economy driven by market forces.

While businesses can take many positives from pledges, albeit ambiguous, to protect the private economy, the crucial issues of interest rates, the floating of the renminbi or banking sector reform, were not publicly mentioned. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that no action will be taken; rather that the government is leaving itself significant room for manoeuvre to implement policy reform in accordance with political and economic necessity.

While the pledge of greater protection for the private sector is a positive announcement from the leaders of the world’s second largest economy, many risks remain inherent in transacting business in country that lacks an independent judiciary and vibrant civil society.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog