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Goldmark: Is China getting ready for major reforms?

Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese President

Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. (April 13, 2013) Credit: AP

Figuring out what's really going on inside China is tough.

But it's important. The decisions China makes affect our lives as well as the lives of more than a billion Chinese, and it appears that some big moves are coming up. And I'm not talking about the recent airspace arm-wrestling with the Japanese.

The new Chinese government, led by President Xi Jinping, has moved away from China's very effective but wildly unpopular "one child" policy. Aggressive pursuit of that policy over half a century has largely stabilized China's population and given it an aging demographic profile more like Europe's than that of an emerging economy. Allowing more two-children families probably assures China the work force and consumer base it needs to continue to grow in the decades ahead. But it also increases the pollution burden and adds to the number of mouths that need to be fed.

In a second major step, President Xi also called for an end to "labor camps" that have been a long-standing feature of the Chinese political landscape. You can be sent to one of them for "re-education" on the say-so of the local police alone, with no trial.

A third is the government's decision to encourage what it calls "social organizations." Essentially this means non-governmental organizations, which the Chinese regime historically has regarded with suspicion.

And a fourth change is news that China will promulgate an M15 fuel standard for the fast-growing automobile sector. M15 stands for 15 percent methanol (as E15 stands for 15 percent ethanol in the United States). Methanol is a vehicle fuel that can be made from natural gas or from coal, and China has plenty of coal.

This last move is being driven by China's strategic dependence on foreign oil. China imports most of its oil and, like us, worries about the resulting national security vulnerability. Methanol is a fuel it can produce domestically, and it would make all the sense in the world to shift some of the mushrooming transportation sector to domestic rather than imported sources.

These initiatives follow continuing economic reforms to decrease reliance on state-owned enterprises, highly publicized prosecutions of high officials for corruption, and talk of removing judges from the control of local party officials and establishing some sort of judicial administrative department.

Xi and his colleagues also have created a new Ministry of Public Security and sidelined the old one. In any dictatorship the agency in charge of security is a critical center of power; in China the agency responsible for security is the party's protector and enforcer. Establishing a new security ministry with a new person in charge may have been an attempt to weaken and isolate the old ministry and its chief, Zhou Yongkang. Whether that is a step in the direction of abolishing or limiting the labor camp system is unclear. It may simply mean that the new ministry will set up its own labor camp system and marginalize the old one.

Sidelining Zhou also may be connected with the promised move to methanol as an automobile fuel. He had served in senior posts in the leading Chinese state-owned oil company, the China National Petroleum Corp., and within the silent but deadly bureaucratic battles that characterize Beijing's politics Zhou reportedly relied upon the barons of China's oil industry, who would not be enthralled by a turn to methanol as a vehicle fuel.

The Chinese have a habit of floating trial balloons on major reforms, and it is not clear how many of these announced measures will happen. But it does look as if serious change is being attempted in China.

Stay tuned.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.