Shuffling nameplates is not the same as reform
A major restructuring of central government ministries, approved by the National People's Congress this month, is supposed to streamline an already bloated bureaucracy and make it more accountable for its services and oversight. But from the number of new vice-ministers unveiled this week, it is questionable whether this has been achieved. The five new 'super ministries' have a staggering 30 deputies among them. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has the most impressive number - nine vice-ministers. But the revamped Ministry of Industry and Information is not far behind, with seven vice-ministers. For all the consolidation, the central government has exactly one fewer ministry than before.
Premier Wen Jiabao has described the bureaucratic shake-up as 'an accelerated transformation of government function'. Yesterday, without directly commenting on the need for such a large number of new vice-ministers, he said excessive concentration of power in the hands of a few people has encouraged corruption among officials. He therefore implies having more people at the top should help diffuse their influence. And this is only the beginning. The latest revamp, according to Mr Wen, should be seen as the first steps towards overhauling the government in 20 years - to make it more accountable and responsive to people's needs and demands.
This is a laudable goal. But it remains unclear how it can square with the reform's other rationale, which is to trim bureaucratic fat and create a more efficient government. This includes making the consolidated ministries more like regulatory agencies rather than the traditional central planning bureaus that control and micromanage in their respective fields. Will the appointment of the new vice-ministers reduce the power of vested interests to protect their turf? Or are they merely the outcome of political compromises to preserve vested interests and their previous spheres of influence under a revamped structure?
This is not to deny there is an urgent need to revamp some departments and bureaus. The scandal-plagued State Food and Drug Administration - whose former chief, Zheng Xiaoyu , was executed last year for taking massive bribes - effectively ceased to function as a watchdog and was endangering lives by approving substandard and even dangerous drugs. It makes sense to absorb it into the Ministry of Health. Beijing increasingly recognises the importance of reversing the serious damage that has been inflicted on the environment after more than two decades of breakneck economic growth. It has, therefore, sensibly created the more powerful Ministry of Environmental Protection out of the former State Environmental Protection Administration.
But since the time of Deng Xiaoping , there have been at least five previous attempts to revamp the bureaucracy. What Beijing has done, time and again, is to substitute much-needed political reform with administrative restructuring. It remains to be seen if the latest revamp is merely another cycle in the contractions and expansions of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy or, rather, the start of a more accountable government. But for this to be a meaningful exercise, genuine political reforms are needed, not just tinkering.