China Unveils Plans for Streamlined Government

China’s State Council has submitted widely-anticipated plans for the restructuring of several government agencies to the National People’s Congress. The seventh such initiative in the past 30 years, the new plan aims to battle corruption, inefficiency and micromanagement across a broad range of important fields. Xinhua provides an overview:

According to the plan, the Ministry of Railways, which has long been at the center of controversy for being both a railway service provider and a railway industry watchdog, will be broken up into administrative and commercial arms.

[…] Other ministries and commissions to see a reshuffle are the Health Ministry and the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which will be merged into a new National Health and Family Planning Commission.

The status of the existing State Food and Drug Administration will be elevated to a general administration in order to improve food and drug safety.

The country’s top oceanic administration will be restructured to bring its maritime law enforcement forces, currently scattered throughout different ministries and departments, under the unified management of a single administration.

The National Energy Administration will be restructured to streamline the administrative and regulatory systems of the energy sector.

Two media regulators, the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, will be merged into a single entity to oversee the country’s press, publication, radio, film and television sectors.

At the Associated Press, Louise Watt outlined the reasoning behind the changes:

This time, the streamlining plan includes guidelines to restrict and better define the central government’s responsibilities, limiting its issuing of permits for projects, the setting of standards and other policies that have slowed decision-making.

“Departments of the State Council are now focusing too much on micro issues. We should attend to our duties and must not meddle in what is not in our business,” Ma Kai, secretary-general of the State Council, or Cabinet, told the legislators. He said that overlapping government functions has often led to buck-passing.

[…] The public has been complaining about government inefficiency and for that reason “we should dare to push ahead with cracking the tough nut of structural reform,” the state-run Jinghua Daily quoted Wang Feng, an official in the Communist Party office involved in drafting the reform program.

But Wang Xiangwei cautioned at the South China Morning Post last week that the rearrangements could bring their own problems:

Some analysts, including Wang Yukai , a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance under the State Council, told state media that five super ministries created under reform measures in 2008 produced mixed results. Indeed, how to force the bigger ministries to deregulate and decentralise may prove to be an even more arduous task for Li in years to come.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is the earliest example of a super ministry. It was formed in 2003 and evolved from the State Planning Commission, a key ministry in the days of the planned economy.

Its purpose is to draft national economic and social development plans and undertake various economic reforms. But in reality, it has become a super powerful ministry with broad regulatory powers covering all the major industries.

Some cynics argue that it has been the biggest stumbling block to structural reforms.

The Economist (via CDT) also argued recently that “super-sized” ministries might fail to deliver promised benefits.

Bloomberg News examined the restructuring of responsibility for China’s maritime security, which comes after an alleged radar-lock incident raised questions about Beijing and Tokyo’s grip on events around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

The State Oceanic Administration will oversee the coast guard, fisheries law-enforcement and the smuggling police, which now fall under separate ministries, a report to the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, said yesterday. The administration also has a law enforcement arm.

The decision signals that China wants to better organize its maritime assets as it wrangles with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in territorial disputes. The U.S. has expressed concern that an accident or miscommunication could lead that sparring to escalate further.

“The recent tension has convinced the central authorities to better coordinate those agencies,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “There’s been growing concern among observes including foreign governments about whether those agencies were coordinated or not. We have evidence that they are not.”

At The Wall Street Journal, Colum Murphy described the break-up of the colossal railway ministry, which currently employs over two million people, runs its own police force and courts, and oversees spending greater than China’s official military budget.

Currently, the ministry both regulates and operates China’s rail system, which has made for a murky structure and impeded both competition and financing.

[…] Under the new blueprint, the Ministry of Transport will absorb administrative duties including overseeing technology and safety standards and service and railway-project quality. A new entity, China Railway Corp., will focus on operational and commercial areas such as management of freight and passenger business as well as railway construction. Given the ministry’s problems, such a move was widely expected.

[…] “The large railway system is critical to China’s economy—and will become even more so with the economy’s shift from coastal areas inland,” said Gerald Ollivier, senior transport specialist with the World Bank, adding that the current multiplicity of roles at the ministry creates “some conflicting objectives.”

Assessments of the restructuring’s likely implications for family planning were somewhat divided. One source quoted by Michael Martina and Sui-Lee Wee at Reuters stressed continuity:

A recently retired official from the Family Planning Commission who maintains close ties with the agency, said the merger does not mean the commission’s power will be reduced.

“For such a long time, hundreds of millions of people had to have contraception and birth control, this kind of work is necessary. But it’s possible that there will be fewer things done by force,” the retired official said.

But some other observers argued that the changes herald the end of China’s ‘One Child Policy’, whose harsh enforcement and demographic effects have grown increasingly contentious. From Laurie Burkitt at The Wall Street Journal:

While the family planning agency will still exist, merging with the Ministry of Health, leaders have preserved it merely as a face-saving measure, said Wang Feng, a population expert and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing. “The way to interpret this is that the laws are in effect, but the judges and the policemen have all been fired,” Mr. Wang said.

Cheng Li, a political expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said, “This is a signal to an end of a policy that in reality isn’t in line with China’s other reforms.”

[… But] “The family planning and one-child policy has been running for so many years, and it is in the constitution as state policy,” said Li Jianxin, a population expert from Peking University. “So I guess it might not be this easy for the new leaders to just simply put an end to it.”

Though their anticipated absorption by the Ministry of Culture did not materialize, two major media regulators are to merge. But the China Copyright and Media blog cautioned that halving the number of organs was unlikely to mean less intervention:

[…] As had been anticipated, the General Administration of Press and Publications and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television will merge into a new body, the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (guojia xinwen chuban guangbo dianying dianshi zongju 国家新闻出版广播电影电视总局). The National Copyright Administration, a subordinate department of GAPP, will also be brought into the SAPPRFT, an unfortunate moniker if ever there was one. […]

It should not be expected, however, that this merger will lead to any form of liberalization or deregulation. It is likely that cultural and media policy will remain in line with the Central Committee Decision on Cultural Reform of late 2011, which aimed to combine commercial success with enhanced political control. Also, problems of administrative overlap and dual licensing remain, particularly in the field of Internet management, as the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology maintain their respective Internet portfolios.

Or, more succinctly: