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Five-year plans in the PR China are more than a relic of the Mao era. Rather than stipulating industrial output in a planned economy, today’s plans serve as roadmaps for China’s future. The MERICS team took a closer look at the recently adopted 13th five-year plan. In the first part of our series, Lea Shih presents ten of the biggest changes from the previous plan.

1. Less bureaucratic style. Poetry it is not, but as far as Communist five-year plans go, this year’s document is written in a much clearer language than its predecessor. The 13th five-year plan uses less bureaucratic and more down-to-earth language. At the same time, it prefers detailed policy prescriptions to abstract goals – and is therefore considerably longer than the 12th five-year plan.

2. New structure, new priorities. In the past, the world changed, but five-year plans did not. China’s economic planning documents traditionally proceeded sector by sector, from agriculture to industry and services. This time, two new chapters about 'innovation-driven development' (创新驱动发展战略) and the 'new economic development system' (发展新体制) precede the traditional sector list. This mirrors the new priorities of the Xi Jinping administration to generate future growth mainly from technological innovation and a market-based economic system.

3. Focus on technological innovation (科技创新为核心). China’s rigid planning system is often seen as an impediment to research creativity and flexible entrepreneurial decision-making. The new five-year plan calls for more international cooperation in the field of big science and big engineering projects. Entrepreneurs and researchers will have a bigger role in determining which areas of research and development to focus on. The plan promises them better access to capital and human resources, as well as a bigger share of the profits their innovations generate.

4. Less focus on the service sector. The service sector no longer gets its own chapter. This surprises many foreign observers who expect China’s transition from an investment-driven to a consumption-based economy. It demonstrates that Xi Jinping was not convinced in internal debates to accept the service sector as the new driver of development.

5. Internet across borders. For the first time, the internet gets its own chapter. The document establishes the goal of expanding the internet-based economic space beyond the national borders (拓展互联网经济空间). The Chinese government will update the transnational internet infrastructure and establish a network for e-commerce with Arabic countries (a so-called E-Silk Road), as well as closer coordination with ASEAN countries on internet infrastructure, data sharing and cybersecurity (a so-called Chinese-ASEAN Cyberport).

6. Ambitious environmental goals: The 13th five-year plan contains ten binding targets (约束性指标) for protecting resources and the environment – up from seven in the 12th plan. Reducing the amount of particulate matter in the air, improving water quality and limiting the use of land for new construction have been added to the list. These ambitious new targets will be very difficult to reach.

7. More free education. Access to education enjoys a high priority in the new plan (公共教育均衡发展). It stipulates that free public schooling should be extended from nine to twelve years. The goal is that more than 90 percent of students should enter senior high school. Vocational training should gradually become free of charge for all.

8. Public services for all. ‘Some get rich first’ may have been the slogan of the Deng Xiaoping era, but under Xi Jinping, the focus is on providing fundamental public services on an equal basis (基本公共服务均等化). Up to now, the provision of public services is primarily the responsibility of local governments. In the future, the central and provincial governments are expected to pitch in.

9. Media go global. At least from the view of China’s leadership, political restrictions for news media are not incompatible with the economics of building a modern media system. The FYP also stresses the need for financial investments in and cooperation with big international media groups.

10. The Party is in charge. When talking about the implementation of the plan, the last chapter explicitly states the leadership role of China’s Communist Party (发挥党的领导核心作用) – something the 12th FYP did not do.