China's shake-up of bureaucracy bodes well for reform
There is no surer way for an incoming government to show that it means business than with a shake-up of the bureaucracy. A week before the start of Xi Jinping's presidency, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang kept with tradition and unveiled at the National People's Congress the seventh restructuring in 40 years. Not since 1998 have ministries been so jolted, with the anachronistic Railways Ministry finally being broken up, food and drug agencies thankfully brought together, the controversial Family Planning Commission coming under the Health Ministry's oversight, maritime law enforcers getting a common berth and the merging of the two media watchdogs. It is all in the name of streamlining and being more responsive to public needs - necessities if reform is to be attained.
The Railways Ministry, a monolith that was until recently a law unto itself, represented the worst of the system. A relic of the days of the planned economy, its officials repeatedly resisted attempts to bring it into line with changes elsewhere in the government. It is widely viewed as bloated and corrupt, the consequences of which have been readily evident in poor service and regular accidents. The downfall of its former chief Liu Zhijun and other top officials in the wake of a corruption scandal and the high-speed rail crash at Wenzhou in 2010 hastened its demise. Few will mourn its passing when it is absorbed into the Transport Ministry.
As welcome will be the bringing together under a single umbrella of the numerous agencies and departments responsible for the safety and regulation of food and drugs. The nation's health and reputation have been damaged by the lack of co-ordination and co-operation. It is also good that coastal security forces, presently scattered across several agencies, will soon be unified as a single coastguard. Maritime interests are important and have to be protected.
Li has been spearheading restructuring efforts since 2008 and as premier is perfectly placed to ensure that changes are smoothly implemented. They have to come to fruition in a timely manner; the era of government control of all aspects of economic and social life has passed. The market has to be given free rein over economic activity. Through administrative restructuring and well-managed reforms, monopolies can be broken and a clear boundary set between the government and market. With transparency and accountability the goal, the bureaucracy can assume its role as a watchdog and regulator.