China’s Reform Imperative

June 20, 2014

After thirty-five years of unprecedented growth, China’s prevailing growth model is running out of steam. Predicated on investment in fixed assets, such as infrastructure, and, to a lesser extent, reliance on exports, the economy is delivering diminishing returns to the Chinese people. For this reason, establishing a new, and more sustainable, growth model is perhaps the most intense challenge now facing the eighteen month-old administration of President Xi Jinping.

In the following series of three essays, originally published in Foreign Affairs magazine over a one-year period, we dissect China’s reform ambitions from several angles.

The first piece, written nearly eight months before the Plenum, offered a cautiously optimistic case for significant and enduring economic reforms. In the second piece, published a month after the Plenum, we offered an interpretation of what these reforms will mean for China. Noting the CCP’s declaration that the market must henceforth play the “decisive” role in allocating resources, we argued that reshaping the state’s role will, in fact, be the central challenge facing the entire reform agenda. Finally, our third piece, published several months later, argued that not only must the state’s role be reshaped but the relationship between various levels of government in China—that is, whether the central or local governments perform precisely which functions—also needs to be rejiggered if reforms are to be executed effectively.

Taken together, these three essays are meant to offer a comprehensive look, albeit from a high level, at China’s economic reform opportunities and challenges.

About the Author

Damien Ma

Fellow, Paulson Institute


Damien Ma is Fellow and Associate Director of the Think Tank at the Paulson Institute, focused on investment and policy programs and leads on various research projects and activities. He is the co-author of the book, In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade. He is the editor of The Economics of Air Pollution in China by Ma Jun, the chief economist of the Chinese central bank. He currently also serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Previously, Ma was a China and Mongolia Senior Analyst at Eurasia Group, the political risk research and advisory firm. He specialized in analyzing the intersection between Chinese policies and markets, with a particular focus on energy and commodities, industrial policy, elite politics, US-China relations, and social policies. His advisory and analytical work served a range of clients from institutional investors and multinational corporations to the US government. Prior to joining Eurasia Group, he was a manager of publications at the US-China Business Council in Washington, DC. He also worked in public relations firm H-Line Ogilvy in Beijing, where he served major multinational clients. In addition, Ma has published widely, including in the The Atlantic online, New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg, among others. He has also appeared in a range of broadcast media such as the Charlie Rose Show, BBC, NPR, and CNBC. He also served as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC. Ma is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was named a “99under33” foreign policy leader in 2012 by the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.

Evan A. Feigenbaum

Vice Chairman, Paulson Institute


Evan A. Feigenbaum is Vice Chairman of The Paulson Institute, an independent center, located at the University of Chicago, established by former US Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson. Initially an academic with a PhD in Chinese politics from Stanford University, his work has since spanned government service, think tanks, the private sector, and three regions of Asia—East, Central, and South. From 2001 to 2009, he served at the US State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia (2007–2009), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia (2006–2007), Member of the Policy Planning Staff with principal responsibility for East Asia and the Pacific (2001–2006), and as an adviser on China to Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, with whom he worked closely in the development of the US-China senior dialogue. Following government service, Dr. Feigenbaum was Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as head of the Asia practice group and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm. He is Nonresident Senior Associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before government service, he worked at Harvard University (1997–2001) as Lecturer on Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and as Executive Director of the AsiaPacific Security Initiative and Program Chair of the Chinese Security Studies Program in the Kennedy School of Government. He taught at the US Naval Postgraduate School (1994–1995) as Lecturer of National Security Affairs and was a consultant on China to the RAND Corporation (1993–1994). He is the author of three books and monographs, including The United States in the New Asia (CFR, 2009, co-author) and China’s Techno-Warriors: National Security and Strategic Competition from the Nuclear to the Information Age (Stanford University Press, 2003), as well as numerous articles and essays.