february: pre-Two Sessions breathing space

preparing for soy-corn intercropping, Tieling City, Liaoning

Food security remains a preoccupation for Beijing. The State Council’s flagship No. 1 Document for 2023, typically focused on agriculture, keeps it firmly at the top of the PRC ag agenda for the coming year. The grain target remains 650 million tonnes (standard in recent years), but an extra 50 million is now expected from multi-cropping rice in the south, higher corn yield and intercropping soy and corn in the southwest. As ever, the No. 1 Doc dreams an impossible dream: this time of a ‘competitive ag sector’ and ‘comprehensive rural revitalisation’.

The ‘greater food strategy’ is another pathway to food security. Moving to centre stage seven years after Beijing first raised it, the strategy encompasses diversifying food sources, turning to grasslands, forests, deep-water mariculture and microorganisms—sources previously overshadowed by grains. 

Rural employment is ranked second only to food security: a batch of job-generating projects receive much play in the Document. County-level reform is equally essential, signalling the economic and social functions increasingly attached to county towns. 

In the city, February saw changes to land and real estate markets, in a bid to reverse the downward drift of 2022. Centralised land auctions (limiting the total annual occasions land can be sold) were eased, giving developers breathing room for new purchases—and increasing local revenues.

Beijing continues easing funding restrictions, allowing private equity to invest in real estate projects. In addition, localities are stepping up pilots to encourage developers to wait until housing projects are finished before selling them.

‘High-quality development’ remains central to policy reforms. On the trade front this underpins Beijing's aspirations to join mega trade pacts like CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) and boutique ones like DEPA (Digital Economy Partnership Agreement). The 2023 Trademark Law Draft Amendment assures and charms global brands, cracking down on bad faith trademark registration and hoarding. Six major cities are now added to the services sector pilot aiming to open up the market and ramp up productivity and economic growth. With decoupling a chronic threat, foreign investment and engagement diversify risk while upgrading domestic consumption

Facing recession and fraught geopolitics, securing energy while installing a low-carbon regime moves up the agenda. Amidst ever more urgent calls for ‘mineral security’, the Ministry of Natural Resources notified a new round of strategic minerals projects.

Export restrictions for key solar PV tech were flagged for public comment. As concern shifts to sustaining consumer demand for NEVs (New Energy Vehicles) after subsidies wind up, pilot zones, too, were listed for electrifying 80 percent of new public-sector vehicles. The scheme will see one charging station for each new public sector NEV, and implies the addition of some 2 million NEVs, assuming all are pure electric cars.

Priorities for 2023 were on display at the National Environmental Work Conference on 16-17 February, notably improved emissions accounting and stepped-up efforts to tackle air, water and soil pollution. Yet absent from the readout were previous restrictions on energy- and emissions-intensive industries, a signal that environmental concerns may rate lower in the year ahead. The restart of the long-awaited China Certified Emissions Reduction scheme earned a verbal tick of approval from Yi Gang 易刚, People’s Bank of China governor, to be supported by an official launch of the China Beijing Green Exchange, a hub for voluntary emissions reductions. 

A joint central work plan emerged on 3 February to revamp hospitals run by SOEs (state-owned enterprises) in a bid to boost healthcare provision. Previously marginalised in the health system with little state funding, SOE medical centres now qualify for the same financial and policy support as public hospitals.

In a national drive to restructure the Basic Medical Insurance scheme for urban employees, funding for personal accounts will be partially channelled to a communal pool. The redistribution—claimed to translate into more extensive coverage for outpatient care—sparked a public backlash. The thousands of retirees in Wuhan and Dalian taking to the streets to protest losing benefits are deemed more threatening than late 2022’s ‘blank paper’ movements: the seniors involved are veterans of earlier turmoil, have free time and above all, consider the cuts existential.

Looking long-term, Xi Jinping urged greater attention to basic research at the third Politburo study session on 21 February 2023. But shorter-term ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘domestic sourcing’ preoccupy the scitech sector; steering tech to be innovative is essential but entails bringing down existing barriers within the sector. Seniors-friendly adaptation of internet services promoted by the State Council, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and other agencies is a case in point. Another is forecasting challenges to specific industries, e.g. NEVs, where intractable ‘bottlenecks’ are faced in core tech. Linked industries require substantial tech support and a system-wide capability to sustain growth.

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