Ambitious reforms plan

Print edition : April 05, 2013

CHINA’S new leader, Xi Jinping, has marked the start of his term in office by unveiling an ambitious restructuring of the government—the biggest such plan in 15 years—that aims to trim the bureaucracy. The plan, announced in Beijing during the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament, which opened on March 5, was described by officials as an attempt to give bigger play to non-governmental forces and the market, and to boost efficiency in administration. The State Council, or Cabinet, introduced the plan with an uncharacteristically frank and informally phrased pledge “to not meddle in what is not in our business”.

The restructuring dissolves two Cabinet-level Ministries—the vast and powerful Ministry of Railways and the Health Ministry, which has been merged with the family planning authority. Officials were, however, quick to quell speculation in China that the merger—which will see the family planning authority lose some of its influence—would lead to a relaxation of unpopular family planning restrictions. Wang Feng, Deputy Director of the State Council’s Restructuring Team, said family planning policies would remain unchanged in light of “the pressure facing residents and resources still persisting in our country with such a huge population”.

The four other major reforms included raising the status of the state Food and Drug Administration to a Ministry-level body to give it more power to address rising concerns over food safety issues; merging the regulators of the press and radio, film and television to create a unified authority that will regulate the media and enforce censorship; restructuring and streamlining the National Energy Administration to include the now-dissolved State Electricity Regulatory Commission; and setting up a National Oceanic Administration to centralise maritime law enforcement agencies, currently operated by different Ministries, with the aim of enabling a more coordinated response to the increasing number of maritime disputes.

The restructuring is the first major reform measure unveiled by the new leadership under Xi Jinping, who took over as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) General Secretary in November. The annual session of the NPC, which concludes on March 17, will appoint Xi Jinping as President and head of the government, and is also expected to select second-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member Li Keqiang as the successor of Premier Wen Jiabao.

Xi Jinping has launched a campaign against corruption, government extravagance and bureaucratic “formalism” in the months since taking over. The government restructuring plan has underscored the new leader’s emphasis on making government smaller and more efficient. The most significant of the six reforms was the dissolution of the Ministry of Railways, which has been seen as the most powerful of the Cabinet-level Ministries along with the Defence Ministry, which operates under the purview of the People’s Liberation Army, and the National Development and Reform Commission. Reflecting the unique degree of autonomy it has enjoyed in the recent past, the Railways even operated its own courts system and police force.

Now, the Ministry will operate under the Ministry of Transport, which will supervise Administration and Planning. A separate China Railways Corporation will handle commercial functions and operations. The high degree of independence enjoyed earlier by the Ministry had allowed it to spearhead an unprecedented expansion of China’s railway network—unrivalled anywhere in the world in terms of speed and scale—and build the world’s largest high-speed network. The independence did, however, lead to a system that enabled little oversight, symbolised in the widespread abuses of power by the notoriously corrupt former Minister Liu Zhijun, who accumulated billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains and reportedly had more than a dozen mistresses. The rapid rise of Liu, who was expelled from the CPC last year, had led to growing calls for overhauling the famously opaque ministry.

Ananth Krishnan

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