China reforms likely to be slow and steady: Analysts

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013, or Summer Davos, in Dalian, Liaoning province on Wednesday, Sept 11, 2013. Business executives and analysts on Thursday, Sept 12, 2
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013, or Summer Davos, in Dalian, Liaoning province on Wednesday, Sept 11, 2013. Business executives and analysts on Thursday, Sept 12, 2013, welcomed Mr Li's pledges of reform during his inaugural speech at the World Economic Forum's "Summer Davos" meeting, but warned the process will be slow and incremental. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

DALIAN (AFP) - Business executives and analysts on Thursday welcomed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's pledges of reform during his inaugural speech at the World Economic Forum's "Summer Davos" meeting, but warned the process will be slow and incremental.

Mr Li, who took office six months ago, delivered a message of change in the world's second-largest economy to global business leaders gathered in Dalian, in north-eastern China.

"China's modernisation will not be accomplished without reform, nor will it be achieved without opening up," he said.

He pledged China would make its yuan currency freely convertible and allow bank interest rates to be set by the market - but did not give any timetable for the moves.

His remarks came before a key Communist Party meeting in November but analysts said a "big bang" approach to change was off the table.

"What will happen, is that China will announce it would open more on the financial market side," Hellmut Schül;tte, vice president of the China Europe International Business School, said on the sidelines of the meeting.

"But China would be very ill-advised to call for a 'big bang', they will take progressive steps," he added.

China has repeatedly vowed to move towards making its currency fully convertible, meaning the unit could be freely bought and sold, allowing unrestricted movement of funds in and out of the country.

China's yuan is only convertible for trade, to buy imported goods or turn revenue from exports back into local funds.

In July, China began allowing banks to set their own lending rates but the central bank still fixes deposit rates by administrative order.

A Chinese banker said deposit rates could be freed as early as 2015.

"For the last key steps in the liberalisation of deposit rates... commercial banks should be fully prepared," said Hong Qi, president of Minsheng Banking Corp.

"It would increase competition, and we might have 'interest wars' so to speak," he added.

China's reform promises come despite a slowing domestic economy, which analysts say could make Beijing less likely to take risks with big change.

Mr Li defended the government's decision to use a stimulus package to spur growth and played down fears over huge local government debt, which he said was "manageable".

During the global financial crisis in 2008, China launched a 4.0 trillion yuan (S$823 billion) stimulus package, but easy credit caused local governments to run up borrowings.

Mr Li indicated the government was willing to accept slower economic growth as it made structural reforms, including a shift to domestic consumption instead of government-led investment.

"Though lower than the near double-digit rates seen in previous years, growth in the neighbourhood of 7.5 percent is still considered high for any major economy in the world," he said.

China's economy expanded 7.7 percent last year, the slowest growth since 1999.

The government is targeting economic growth of 7.5 percent for this year.