Division of powers set to be given a trial run in the capital
Separation of powers - translated into Chinese as san quan fen li (three divisions of power) - is one of the main features of Western-style democracy and any attempt to transplant it to the mainland, where the Communist Party controls the legislature, executive and judiciary, is strictly prohibited.
But wielding so much power - over all people and all things - can be a tiring game to play, just as running the old planned economy was. As an editorial in Hangzhou's Du Shi Kuai Bao declared: 'Sustainable power must be under proper checks, constraints, regulations and supervision.'
Struggling to rein in a bloated bureaucracy, rampant corruption, and all sorts of dereliction and lack of ability, Beijing may want to rewrite its own game rules.
Mentioning the separation of powers is still forbidden, but that does not mean that Communist Party theorists cannot find other ways of redefining power. Some of them have been talking about the separation of administrative powers - decision-making, implementation and supervision.
The notion first appeared at the Communist Party's 17th national congress in 2007 but progress towards it has been sporadic.
Local officials in Beijing sought to redress that last week, with top officials from the municipal corruption prevention bureau telling The Beijing News that they were redefining administrative power in all district- and county-level divisions.
According to a work plan adopted by the municipal leadership late last month, in five years' time there will be healthy 'mutual constraint and co-ordination' among decision-making, implementing and supervisory departments, based on the 'relative separation of power'.
Supervision would focus on officials involved in areas that had spawned large numbers of corruption cases, such as those responsible for infrastructure development, land approval and equity restructuring in state-owned enterprises. Management would also be strengthened in areas that tended to arouse public concerns more easily, the plan said, ranging from land acquisition to education, medical care, social security, food and drug safety, environmental protection and work safety.
Power would be exercised 'under sunlight', officials said, promising detailed procedures for the making and implementation of key decisions, and that every government office would have to release details of its functions and operations through the media and government websites.
The Beijing Times called the municipal government's plan a first step in the transparent operation of government power, and in placing it under due supervision.
Not every commentator was so sanguine. It is, after all, still a plan and will take five years to bear all the promised fruit. A column on Rednet.cn, a website owned by the Hunan provincial government, said there might be a danger that only relative separation of power would result in more government offices or, worse still, three sets of administrative bureaucracy.
At this moment, one can only say that Beijing's plan looks very pretty, said one commentary on People.com.cn, the website of the party mouthpiece People's Daily. Whether it really works, only time will tell. In the meantime, there were more commentaries on the general subject of political power. Here are two examples:
Last Monday, a column in the Study Times, run by the Communist Party's central school, said China should not wait to answer questions about whether it should put in place systematic constraints on power, divide and reintegrate its existing power structure, and include all officials in a rigorous responsibility system.
On Thursday, the usually nationalistic Global Times, a subsidiary of the People's Daily, elaborated on a number of alleged inadequacies in Western democracy, including deep-rooted ideological dogmas, failure to select capable leaders and practice good management, and a lack of long-term plans.
US-style checking and balancing, the Global Times said, was easily reduced to opposition for the sake of opposition, where politicians tended to forget about finding solutions to problems facing society, let alone efficiently implementing the right solutions.