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What if China’s leaders were as keen on reform as they are on fighting graft?

By all accounts, the G20 summit was a resounding success for China. Over the past week, state media has basked in the glory of the summit that showcased China’s rising influence and gave it the leading role in the international arena in forging broad consensus over ways to fix the fragile global economy.

Now the party is over and the hard work begins. For many keen observers, the most important question is whether China will truly rise to the challenge thrown down by its own president, Xi Jinping, who urged global action on structural reform and innovation at the summit.

Indeed, Xi’s call for concrete action and avoiding “empty talk” was aimed at Chinese leaders as much as at other world leaders.

Since he came to power in late 2012, “reform” and “innovation” are the second and third most frequently used buzzwords – after “corruption” – as his administration has promised drastic action plans to put China on a path to sustainable growth.

But as far as foreign investors and private businesspeople are concerned, there have been many lofty and loud words, but little action. Many of them have increasingly complained about signs of reforms being stalled or even reversed, making life harder for them.

It seems not long ago, in November 2013, when the mainland leadership endorsed a plan of 60 workable measures, which economists agreed could significantly transform the Chinese economy even if only half of them were implemented.

Three years later, there is little to show. For instance, on the sensitive and important issue of reforming the state-owned enterprises, there has been little progress other than announcements that some of them will be merged in name only, with officials at those firms privately lamenting a lack of enthusiasm at all levels to move forward.

The plan also promised decisive measures to break down the barriers blocking private businesses into education, medical care, and elderly care but to little avail. There was big fanfare about the plan to dismantle the Hukou system to allow migrant labourers to settle down in cities and enjoy the same benefits as the urbanites, but again progress has been slow.

There is little to report even on the plan to cut excess capacity in coal and steel production, a key component in the supply-side structural reforms Xi himself has personally advocated, and also a key complaint from Western countries dismayed by the dumping of cheap Chinese steel products in their countries.

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This has given rise to an apt saying about “enthusiasm at the top and apathy down below”, as the local authorities have dragged their feet over detailed implementation measures despite the countless meetings the leadership has held to design and push the plans.

During the era of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, their weak central leadership led to a saying that “policies never make it beyond the walls of Zhongnanhai”, lamenting the fact that local officials merely pay lip service to directives from the downtown compound where Beijing’s leaders live and work.

It is really telling that now Xi is shaping up to become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong his administration is still facing a similar problem.

The leaders cannot be faulted for not trying hard. Last month, the State Council reportedly sent inspection teams to 10 provinces including those industrial powerhouses like Shandong and Henan, aiming to force local authorities to cut 45 million tonnes of raw steel products and 250 million tonnes of coal by the end of this year.

It remains unclear if those efforts will pay off. And even if the so-called deadline were met, there would still be a question over whether the cut actually happened, as the local authorities have developed a fine art of fobbing off the central government.

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Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Li Daokui, a leading mainland economist, has offered a solution: the leadership should pursue reforms with the zeal it has shown for its anti-corruption drive.

That idea is worth exploring. For any major anti-graft investigation, special teams are set up to follow up to the end, before making the results public so as to rally public opinion to their causes. Many of those teams are reportedly personally overseen by the top leaders themselves.

Following the similar vein, leaders could select several major impact sectors like the state-owned enterprises and Hukou system, and set up special action teams to work on detailed implementation measures and will not stop until breakthroughs are achieved.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper