When it comes to official documents, China’s five-year plans (FYPs) are the mother of them all. Not only do FYPs encapsulate all major socioeconomic goals and priorities, they contain the basic assessment and strategy of how China aims to develop.
Led by the National Development and Reform Commission, the massive effort involved to deliver the FYP starts years in advance. Many sessions are held across government agencies, think tanks, academia, and other stakeholders to gather input. The final output typically reflects the general consensus of the rounds of consultations.
In anticipation of the full 14th FYP’s (2021-2025) imminent arrival, it is useful to look both backward and forward to get a sense of how these plans have evolved and what the new emphases will be. (This analysis does not look at the 2035 long-range plan that will be released simultaneously.)
A novel way to illustrate that documents and language matter in Chinese policymaking is to apply data-driven content analysis. We use such an approach to tease out insights from the 8th FYP (1991-1995) to the present to see whether correlations exist with major policy priorities throughout the past three decades. In addition, we apply another text-mining method in an attempt to anticipate the key themes and priorities in the full 14th FYP.
It’s Not All About Xi
Between the 8th and the 13th FYPs, the Chinese economy grew roughly 40 times to over $15 trillion in 2020. With the ever-growing complexity and size of the economy, the notion of “planning” ironically has fallen dramatically since the 1990s, superseded by “markets” and “enterprise” (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Less Focus on “Plans” and More Emphasis on “Markets” and “Enterprise” Source: Author.
That both these terms fell from their peak in the 10th FYP seem to correspond with the reversal of the liberal opening period under the Jiang Zemin administration ahead of China joining the World Trade Organization. It also coincides with the change in the Hu Jintao decade, which arguably began to adopt a more statist view of economic development.
Such a shift under Hu likely also explains the rise of “innovation” relative to the narrower concept of “technology” (see Figure 2). That’s because openness went both ways: until about the mid-2000s, China was quite open to importing technology and technology transfers to accelerate its catch-up phase. Under Hu, however, “indigenous innovation” became prominent and shaped policies, as the view shifted from merely acquiring technology to developing a domestic innovation ecosystem.
Figure 2. “Technology” Declines, “Innovation” Rises Since the 8th FYP Note: For Figures 1 and 2, 0.001=1/1,000 words. The average FYP document has 45,000 to 50,000 words.
Based on the analysis of previous FYPs, the Xi Jinping administration has exhibited more continuity with the process that began under Hu than is usually appreciated. Innovation has remained a core platform under Xi, while statist elements such as industrial policy has surged in the political economy.
Future work on policy continuities and discontinuities would be useful to further elucidate the extent to which the Xi era marks a meaningful break with the previous Hu era.
What To Expect in the 14th FYP?
Although the initial outline of the 14th FYP offered some hints on what to expect, we employed a predictive model that used a form of supervised learning to determine the weights of certain topics based on a defined bag-of-words.
The algorithmic model, built on top of the open-source Policybot.io, learns from these statistical word patterns and semantics from both the draft and actual 8th to 13th FYPs. Based on that learning, the model then extrapolates from the 14th FYP draft and predicts the true weights of the actual 14th FYP, with an accuracy of 75% on average (see Figures 3a and 3b).
Figure 3a. Key Priorities from 8th FYP to 14th FYP Source: Author.
Figure 3b. Shifting Priorities between the 13th and 14th FYPs*14th (Predicted)
Note: For Figure 3a, a total of 16 topics were run through the model, but only a select few are represented for ease of viewing. These topics are categorized into three tiers of priorities, determined by the predicted weight thresholds (e.g. >20% = high priority; <10% = low priority). Full list of topics and methodology is available upon request. For Figure 3b, weight is calculated by the number of sentences with these key topics divided by the overall document size.
Select insights from the predicted results are highlighted below:
- While priorities such as “economy/industrialization” and “science/innovation/technology” continue to dominate, the 14th FYP is likely to see a notable rise of “Party building.”
- Despite it being in the bottom tier of priorities, “international relations” is expected to see its weight rise in the 14th FYP, as it did in the 13th FYP.
- Seemingly at odds with the apparent rise of state capitalism, “SOE development” is expected to decline in its weight relative to the 13th FYP, dwelling at the bottom of priorities.
- While “system/strategies” has been a top-three priority historically, its weight is expected to rise significantly in the 14th FYP. This seems to align with Beijing’s latest emphasis on more comprehensive planning for contingencies.
- The concept of “green development” gained currency during the 11th FYP under Hu and should hold steady as an important priority in the 14th FYP.
These topics are far from comprehensive, and other potential insights can be derived from this model. This represents just a first foray into applying content analysis to gain a better sense of how shifts in priorities can be inferred and anticipated from rigorous analysis of policy documents.
At a minimum, more research and more robust models need to be built to determine whether we can consistently demonstrate that what Beijing includes or omits in formal documents have considerable predictive utility for policy outcomes.
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