Beacons on the reform path ahead
China Daily

Highrises dominate the skyline on both sides of the Huangpu River in Shanghai. (Photo: Gao Erqiang/China Daily)

When China established the country's first pilot free trade zone in Shanghai six years ago many people adopted a wait-and-see attitude, as unlike other projects of national importance, the central authorities had not set aside any special funds or offered any preferential policies tailor-made for the zone as, it was intended as a testing ground for reforms.

The FTZ piloted the negative list for foreign investment — which has become shorter year by year — a more efficient registration system for businesses from home and abroad, revised the overall legal framework for the administration of foreign investment and enterprises, and eased restrictions on foreign currency exchange and foreign participation in China's e-commerce sector.

The success of the Shanghai pilot FTZ can be seen from the fact that when China launched six more pilot FTZs on Monday — in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and Shandong, Jiangsu, Hebei, Yunnan and Heilongjiang provinces — it brought the total number of pilot FTZs in the country to 17, each of which is a "test field" for reforms in certain areas.

Like the Special Economic Zones set up in the late 1970s and 1980s, testing reforms on a small scale before rolling them out nationwide minimizes the influences of possible failures and is conducive to granting local officials more autonomy.

The 11 pilot FTZs founded before 2018 have contributed 171 reform plans that have been proved successful in their respective situations to the central authorities, and many of them have been rolled out nationwide. They mark a meaningful paradigm shift in reform as they are not only top-down but are also expanded from the bottom. The close interaction between local and central decision-makers and competition among the pilot FTZs — not only with regard to economic growth but also in successfully piloting reforms — are crucial to the vitality of the country's reform and the sustainability of its development.

These pilot FTZs have also reaped their own bonuses for being trailbreakers. By the end of 2018, the 11 pilot FTZs, with an area of no more than 2 percent of the national territory, had attracted 12 percent of the total foreign direct investment in China and contributed to 12 percent of the country's foreign trade.

It is hoped all the pilot FTZs can continue to act as powerful engines for reform and growth, as it is fair to say that the FTZs have been transformed from a pilot project to a multipronged national development strategy.