National People's Congress

Don't hold your breath for major reform plan at NPC meeting

Zhengxu Wang says an announcement of the cabinet line-up aside, China's leaders won't be talking up major reform at the NPC meeting. They have learned it's wiser to play down expectations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 2:51am

This year's National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meetings are important in the sense that a new government will be "sworn in". The new premier will take up his position, together with a whole new cabinet - following the forming of a new Central Committee, ministers are expected to be reappointed as well, with a five-year term ahead.

And there will be no surprises when the president, vice-president, and chairmen of the new NPC Standing Committee and CPPCC are all "elected" or confirmed.

The public may be more eager to find out what policy initiatives the new government will press ahead with. They expect policies to show that it is the right government for the country. The new party leadership that emerged from November's Communist Party congress carries a strong mandate of "reform". With the honeymoon period fading, citizens are watching carefully to see what the leadership has to offer in terms of real action.

Before the party congress, there was already an indication that the new leadership would take structural reforms quite seriously and there were signs Xi Jinping had been commissioning reform proposals throughout the past year or two.

Li Keqiang, who will become premier, was also quick to signal his reformist intentions and that his government would take concrete measures.

But it is too soon to expect the leadership team to roll out a comprehensive reform plan now; there simply hasn't been enough time to forge a consensus among the party elite since November's congress.

The past three months have mainly been taken up with lining up provincial leaders and working out political appointments for state agencies, which will be unveiled at the end of the NPC session.

In fact, the party plenum (the second of this new Central Committee) that closed last week explicitly said in its communiqué that it had agreed on the political appointment list for state agencies. But it did not give explicit promises of reform policies to be implemented soon. It is certainly not the right time to stir up high expectations of reform among the public.

Indeed, a real "blueprint" or "road map" of comprehensive structural reforms will very likely have to wait until the third party plenum this autumn. Historically, the major policy thinking of a new leadership team has often been unveiled at such a time. Therefore, while trying to maintain the image of a reform-minded leadership, this week's NPC session will avoid committing too quickly to any real reform plans. Instead, it will focus on installing the new government. Media attention will be drawn to who gets which ministerial and deputy state position.

For example, who will succeed Dai Bingguo as state councillor has drawn much speculation. That person, widely tipped to be Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi , will oversee China's foreign affairs. Meanwhile, Wang Yi , director of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, is expected to be the new foreign minister.

And in the past few weeks, there have been reports that Zhou Xiaochuan, despite being left out of the new Central Committee, will stay as the governor of the People's Bank of China, China's central bank. That will be quite a novel arrangement, as no governor of the central bank had been chosen outside the Central Committee.

Another critical development will be the unveiling of a new plan to restructure the State Council. The urge to downsize and streamline the council has been strong. Early last year, a document emerged on the internet containing allegedly leaked information of the party's plan to restructure the State Council ministries.

Some ideas seemed quite radical but, on closer examination, they make a lot of sense. For example, it was proposed that the Ministry of Railways be closed down and the regional railway bureaus converted into for-profit commercial firms. The regulatory function of the ministry could be relocated to the Ministry of Transport.

Similar rumours abound on the eve of this lianghui. A researcher affiliated with the State Forestry Administration said late last year that there was deliberation about the administration merging with the Ministry of Agriculture. Other agencies that might be merged include the National Population and Family Planning Commission and the three bureaus of radio and television, publishing and sports.

What is different in this round of government restructuring is the low-profile nature of the discussion. Five years ago, there was very heated discussion of an imminent " dabuzhi (grand ministry) reform".

But, in the end, it didn't seem to gain much mileage. The public expected several ministries to be closed down and that the government would emerge more competent and efficient. The outcome was very disappointing, with only minor restructuring. A wave of disillusionment followed, and people criticised the leadership's inability to introduce real reform.

By framing the proposal simply as a plan of the State Council's "organisational reform and functional reorientation", Xi and Li are trying to manage the public's expectations, and keep them low.

Given the very complex nature of the reform tasks that lie ahead, that's probably the smart thing to do.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is associate professor at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and deputy director of China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham