China's Economic Reform

Why China's Economy Must Reform or Collapse

Chinese President Xi Jinping Must Reform China's Economy

Lintao Zhang / Getty Images 

China's economic reform is a long-term plan to shift from a command economy to a mixed economy. That means its recent slowdown in economic growth is intentional. It's not a sign of a collapse. It's consistent with a long-term plan Chinese President Xi Jinping released in 2015.

The “Made in China 2025” plan recommends advances in technology, specifically big data, aircraft engines, and clean cars. China has become a world leader in solar technology. It is cutting back on steel and coal production.

If you understand this blueprint for economic reform, all the warnings about China's slowdown or collapse will be less alarming. That includes the 3% drop in the yuan to dollar exchange rate and the July drop in China's stock market in 2015. It also explains China's desire for the yuan to become a global reserve currency.


In 2014, China became the world's largest economy.

In 2019, its gross domestic product, measured by purchasing power parity (GDP, PPP), was $22.5 trillion. That's 17% of the world's total of $130 trillion.

China's Economic Reform Plan

China's reform will shift the economy from one based on government spending, state-run companies, and low-cost exports. It moves it toward private investment, entrepreneurial innovation, and domestic consumption. China needs to reduce overcapacity in factories. It must allow the market to absorb a stockpile of newly built and vacant homes. It wants to also lower business costs for entrepreneurs. As a result, China is willing to accept a slower rate of growth of around 6.5%.

China's state-owned companies are the pillars of its economic growth. But many are bloated, ineffective, and unprofitable. They are in the steel, glassworks, and other manufacturing industries. The reforms modernized them to attract private investors. But they created a glut of commodities. The oversupply caused prices to plummet which consequently sabotaged the privatization efforts.

The government will loosen price controls on water, electricity and natural resources. Companies in these industries can consolidate and become larger. But they must become profitable.

The “Made in China 2025” plan comprehensively upgrades the manufacturing industry. It focuses on innovation and quality over quantity. China sees an opportunity in being a world leader in green development. To achieve these ends, China will nurture its human talent.

Innovation will flourish only if China strengthens the protection of intellectual property rights. The government must allow firms to declare their own technology standards. They must also be free to participate in international standards setting.

The government creates 40 manufacturing innovation centers by 2025. It also wants to source 70% of core manufacturing materials domestically by 2025.

The plan prioritizes 10 sectors:

  1. New Advanced Information Technology
  2. Automated Machine Tools & Robotics
  3. Aerospace and Aeronautical Equipment
  4. Maritime Equipment and High-Tech Shipping
  5. Modern Rail Transport Equipment
  6. New-Energy Vehicles and Equipment
  7. Power Equipment
  8. Agricultural Equipment
  9. New Materials
  10. Biopharma and Advanced Medical Products

Banking reform will create a competitive financial system. In the past, the government lowered interest rates to make borrowing easier. Corporate debt was over 150% of GDP in October 2020, double the U.S. level of about 75%. China has gotten by with a large shadow banking system that substituted for small private banks. But that created lots of corruption.

In 2014, the government insured bank deposits. It then allowed banks to raise interest rates for consumer deposits. Those two moves gave savers more to spend and banks more to lend. The government also encouraged the creation of more privately-held smaller banks. They are financing the innovative new companies that drive competition.

Innovation could help companies grow enough to launch an initial public offering. In the past, the government decided which companies could list stocks on the market. The reform could allow the companies to make their own decisions.

This greater risk is being carefully introduced. The government may allow some companies to default without bailing them out. That may create bank losses that the government will try to manage.


The People's Bank of China is taking steps to allow the yuan to replace the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency.

As a first step toward international currency trading, the yuan is now traded in London and Singapore. That will open China to more foreign direct investment

These changes are needed but risky. Other countries, such as Norway, Argentina, and Thailand, liberalized their financial sectors only to experience banking crises within a few years.

To make these risky reforms acceptable, President Xi also granted more personal liberties. Couples can have a second child if one spouse is an only child. That will reverse a declining labor force. Labor camps will be abolished. Those were punishments without judicial process for dissidents, prostitutes and the homeless.

Rural workers will keep their right to public services when they move to an urban area for work. Farmers can sell their land instead of the local government controlling its use. That will probably be opposed by the local authorities who depend on revenues from these collectives to pay their debts. The government may allow localities to set their own higher tax rates. This could upset the balance of power though between them. If successful, these measures will increase the labor supply for urban businesses. 

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yahoo Finance. "USD/CNY (USDCNY=X)."

  2. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. "China’s Stock Market Collapse and Government’s Response."

  3. "China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States," Page 10.

  4. The World Bank. "GDP, PPP (Constant 2017 International $) - China."

  5. The World Bank. "GDP, PPP (Constant 2017 International $)."

  6. The People's Republic of China. "China Sets 2018 GDP Growth Target at Around 6.5 Percent."

  7. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Country Analysis Executive Summary: China," Pages 1-2.

  8. The People's Republic of China. "China to Build 40 Manufacturing Innovation Centers by 2025."

  9. The People's Republic of China. "Industries Targeted for Upgrading."

  10. "'Made in China 2025' Industrial Policies: Issues for Congress."

  11. International Monetary Fund. "Nonfinancial Corporate Debt, Loans and Debt Securities. Percent of GDP."

  12. The People's Republic of China. "Full Text: Report on the Work of the Government (2015)."

Related Articles