Given that he was speaking to honor the 40th anniversary of the 1978 reforms that set China on the path toward building a modern industrialized state, Xi Jinping - markets had hoped - might announce new reform measures or economic liberalization efforts like certain policy moves that had been teased by the Wall Street Journal last week.
Yet, as we described last night, Chinese stocks slumped as Xi opted not to make "liberalization" and "reform" the centerpiece of his speech (unlike his memorable opening remarks at Davos 2017 where he spoke about "opening up" the Chinese economy, comments that were cheered by international investors). Instead, Xi defended China's embrace of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and insisted the world's second largest economy would stick to its policy agenda despite pressure from the US, according to Bloomberg.
Xi told an audience of party officials, military leaders and entrepreneurs in a speech Tuesday that "no one is in the position to dictate to the Chinese people what should and should not be done." The 80-minute address in Beijing was held to mark the 40th anniversary of the Reform and Opening Up campaign that unleashed the country’s economic boom under then leader Deng Xiaoping.
In remarks that ranged from the economy to the environment to Taiwan and the South China Sea, Xi presented his agenda as the logical outcome of the country’s post-1978 "reform era" and Chinese history more broadly. He reasserted his contention that the country had entered a "new era" under his leadership and was poised for a bigger role in world affairs.
Markets were less than thrilled, as Chinese stocks slid after the hoped-for reform announcements didn't materialize.
While the speech was being watched for potential policy announcements, Xi offered no new ideas to boost the economy or assuage U.S. concerns. Instead, he reiterated the need for the Communist Party to exercise leadership and control over all aspects of the country’s development:
"What and how to reform must be based on the overarching goal of improving and developing the socialist system with Chinese characteristics," Xi said "We will resolutely reform what should or can be changed, but will never reform what cannot be changed."
Just two-and-a-half weeks after China committed to pursuing an end to the trade war with the US, the tone of Xi's remarks was conspicuously defiant.
The speech continued the measured, if defiant, tone Xi has struck amid a trade war with the U.S. that has fueled concerns about China’s slowing economy and battered capital markets. He provided little insight into how his government might assuage U.S. demands in ongoing trade talks, including calls to roll back support for state-owned enterprises and key technological industries.
In fact, Xi’s speech reaffirmed China’s pursuit of "indigenous innovation" in "core technologies."
In arguing that China can’t be dictated to, Xi followed in the footsteps of previous leaders. Mao Zedong rejected the advice of Soviet leaders in both his strategy for winning the revolution and in his desire to pursue his Great Leap Forward industrialization campaign. Deng refused to entertain Mikhail Gorbachev’s ideas for pursuing political reform together with economic opening and rejected 1990s "shock therapy" as socialist systems were dismantled rapidly across the world.
He also ominously claimed that "there is no textbook" of golden rules to follow toward reform in China, while rejecting analysts' hopes for new policy initiatives to arrest the slowdown in China's economic growth that has been aggravated by its trade war with the US.
"There is no textbook of golden rules to follow for reform and development in China, a country with over 5,000 years of civilization and more than 1.3 billion people," Xi said.
Despite the expectations of some analysts, Xi delivered no new policy initiatives to address fears that China’s economic slowdown might worsen as the trade war continues with the U.S. Instead, he emphasized the continuation of established policies.
However, announcements of new reforms could be forthcoming in the days ahead as China's leaders begin an economic-policy meeting.
Leaders are expected to start their annual economic policy-meeting Wednesday at which more detailed plans may be unveiled. The gathering lays down priorities for economic policy for the coming year and last year laid out a three-year approach to winning three "critical battles."
"We will resolutely fight an uphill battle to prevent and defuse major risks, lift people out of poverty, and prevent and control pollution," Xi said. "China will promote trade convenience and continue to play the role of a responsible major nation."
For those who have 2 hours to kill - and have nothing better to do - watch his full translated speech below: