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China promises market opening in reform plan

Joe Mcdonald, AP Business Writer

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2013 file photo released by China's Xinhua news agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and other Communist Party top leaders raise their hands to vote in the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing. China's leaders pledged Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, to open state-dominated industries wider to private competition and ease limits on foreign investment in e-commerce and other businesses in a sweeping reform plan aimed at rejuvenating a slowing economy. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Lan Hongguang, File) NO SALES

BEIJING (AP) -- China's leaders pledged Friday to open state-dominated industries wider to private competition and ease limits on foreign investment in e-commerce and other businesses in a sweeping reform plan aimed at rejuvenating a slowing economy.

The changes promised in a report issued following a closely watched Communist Party conference could be China's most significant economic overhaul in at least two decades. State media have compared the effort to market-style reforms in 1978 that launched China's economic boom.

Chinese leaders are trying to replace a growth model based on exports and investment that has run out of steam after delivering three decades of rapid growth. Reform advocates say economic growth rates will plunge, undermining the ruling party's claim to power, if industries from energy to telecoms to banking that are controlled by state companies are not opened to competition.

Friday's report pledged to ease barriers to more dynamic private competitors, though the ruling party reaffirmed that state-owned industry is considered the core of the economy.

"We must promote orderly opening to the outside," the report said.

It left out details of what role private or foreign companies might be allowed in state-controlled industries. But it outlined changes clearly intended to make industries more efficient and productive by injecting more competition. That might threaten politically favored state companies that benefit from cheap credit, land and other resources, prompting a backlash from their allies in the party for whom they provide revenues and jobs to reward supporters.

The report "included sweeping reforms on almost all fronts, in some cases more than expected before the meeting," said UBS economist Tao Wang. "Of course, the implications for the economy and for the market depend crucially on the implementation."

The "third plenum" meeting of the ruling party's 205-member Central Committee offered a platform for President Xi Jinping, who became party leader last year, to promote his own vision for the world's second-largest economy.

Such meetings at this point in the party's five-year political cycle are seen as a launching pad for changes in economic direction after Deng Xiaoping used a third plenum in 1978 to unveil his reforms.

Before the meeting, communist leaders raised hopes and the political stakes by promising "unprecedented" reforms.

They then left companies and financial markets hanging by wrapping up their meeting Tuesday with a brief statement that promised change but gave no details, prompting fears they had succumbed to political deadlock. Friday's lengthy report could help to reassure the public the party is taking action, though some analysts have warned against trying to do too much at one time.

The report also promised reforms in an array of non-economic areas, from making courts more responsive to easing household registration rules that make it harder for rural residents to move into cities to look for work.

In a move possibly aimed at responding to the rapid aging of China's population, the report said the policy that limits most urban couples to one child will be eased. It said couples in which one partner is an only child will be allowed two births.

Beijing says the three-decade-old policy, which is widely disliked, has helped China by slowing population growth and easing the strain on water and other limited resources. But the abrupt fall in the birth rate is pushing up average age of the population of 1.3 billion people. Chinese leaders worry about a dwindling number of workers supporting a growing group of retirees.

Pressure for change has mounted as China's economic growth declined steadily over the past two years. It tumbled to a two-decade low of 7.5 percent in the quarter ending in June — barely half of 2009's peak of 14.2 percent. Beijing perked up growth with a mini-stimulus of higher spending on building railways and other public works but forecasts say it could slump again later this year.

Chinese leaders have been trying to shift to more self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumption. But consumer spending is growing more slowly than they want. Government spending accounted for more than half of the latest quarter's growth.

Communist leaders have made piecemeal efforts to inject market forces into areas such as bank lending. In July, regulators eliminated controls on interest rates charged on commercial loans in a move that ultimately could lower borrowing costs for private companies.

The party said Tuesday it will create a committee to "deepen reforms." Dictating policy changes from such a high political level could help to overcome bureaucratic squabbling and resistance that has hampered previous reform efforts.

Friday's report said the government will reduce its role in making economic decisions and focus more on acting as a regulator of free-market competition.

It promised measures including allowing the creation of privately owned banks and use of market forces to allocate resources. Both would help more nimble, efficient entrepreneurs who create most of China's jobs and wealth but struggle to get financing.

As for foreign companies, the report pledges to ease limits on investment in e-commerce, accounting, logistics and other service industries. That could promote innovation in a wide range of areas in which Chinese competitors are far behind global standards.

In the countryside, home to half of China's population, party leaders are promising to spread prosperity through more social spending and giving farmers more control over land, all of which is owned by the state. Giving farmers ownership of land or at least more control could allow them to mortgage or rent it to buy better seeds and technology.

The document said farmers will be given more "property rights," though land still would be owned by rural collectives, rather than individuals. Still, it said farmers who have "management rights" will be allowed to treat them as an asset that can be mortgaged or transferred.

In health care, the party will try to expand services by allowing private, not-for-profit hospitals and allowing services at private hospitals to be paid for by the government's medical insurance system.

The report also pledged to ease restrictions that bar Chinese doctors from working for more than one employer. That might help to increase their incomes and combat the widespread practice of hospital employees accepting informal payments from patients or medical suppliers — a problem highlighted by bribery accusations leveled this year against foreign pharmaceutical companies.