Analysts question whether mergers of massive agencies are key to reform

As mainland government ministries prepare for more mergers, analysts question whether such moves alone can correct deep-seated problems

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 4:02pm

A new round of restructuring of cabinet agencies has been put on the agenda for next month's annual session of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature.

The Communist Party's Central Committee will hold a three-day plenum starting today to discuss restructuring plans, paving the way for the first overhaul of the State Council, the cabinet, in five years.

The Politburo on Saturday endorsed draft reform plans to be discussed at the plenum. The changes will be approved by the national legislature when it meets in March for the annual session that will see Li Keqiang, the party's No2 figure, succeed Wen Jiabao as premier.

Xinhua said Politburo members agreed that reform should be carried out in an "active yet prudent, step-by-step manner," suggesting no radical changes.

Professor Wang Yukai from the National School of Administration, who took part in discussions leading to the creation of several "super ministries" five years ago, said the long-awaited consolidation of the massive Ministry of Railways into the Ministry of Transport could take place this year, along with the creation of super Ministry of Culture, which would include the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

A merger of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the State Ethnic Affairs Commission was also possible, Wang said.

He did not expect more major mergers, unlike five years ago, because a new president, premier and NPC chairman would be taking office and they would not want to offend too many people so early in their administration.

A report in Caijing magazine over the weekend also said the scandal-hit railways ministry was likely to be merged with the transport ministry, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs may widen its responsibilities over "social management". The changes would also include nationwide reform of food safety and more responsibility for the State Oceanic Administration, according to the magazine.

Public calls for reform of the railways ministry have mounted after a series of scandals and embarrassments, including former minister Liu Zhijun's removal and arrest for corruption and a high-speed-train crash in Wenzhou in July 2011 that killed 40 passengers and injured scores more.

Strong opposition from its leaders ensured the ministry survived intact during then premier Zhu Rongji's reform of state monopolies in 2000 and Premier Wen Jiabao's cabinet streamlining in 2008.

Railways expert Wang Mengshu , who is also an NPC deputy, said the existing transport and railways ministries could be merged into a transport commission under the State Council.

He suggested it could retain responsibility for railway construction and raising funds, with a separate company established to take over day-to-day operation of the rail network.

Wang also said that no matter how the ministry was restructured, the top priorities should be "to ensure the safe operation of railways and the livelihood of 2 million railway workers nationwide".

Food safety problems won't be solved just because the State Administration for Industry and Commerce and the General Administration of Quality Supervision are merged

That will be no easy task for the ministry, which was 2.66 trillion yuan in debt at the end of September.

The establishment of a super culture ministry looks less problematic, with many local governments already having merged their press and publication and radio, film and television authorities with their culture bureaus.

The Beijing-based Economic Observer, quoting a recent research report, said more than 60 per cent of city governments had completed such mergers by the end of last year,

A proposal for more radical reform, which would cut the number of cabinet agencies from 27 to 18, has circulated widely online recently, but analysts said such big changes were unlikely.

Professor Zhu Lijia , from the National School of Administration, said the State Council should focus more on the removal of internal divisions left behind following the restructuring five years ago.

"How to make every department perform its duty is a more important issue now," Zhu said. "Food safety problems won't be solved just because the State Administration for Industry and Commerce and the General Administration of Quality Supervision are merged."

Professor Yang Guangbin, a Renmin University political scientist, said local governments were outperforming the central government when it came to streamlining their administrations.

"The 2008 reform was like putting old wine in a new bottle," he said. "There were still so many ministers and deputy ministers after the reform."

In 2008, the leadership in Beijing combined 15 agencies into five expanded ministries based on shared goals and responsibilities: the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Industry and Information, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction.

The State Council has been restructuring its ministries and commissions every five years since the early 1980s.

It cut the number from 52 to 42 in 1982, from 45 to 41 in 1988, from 42 to 41 in 1993, from 40 to 29 in 1998, from 29 to 28 in 2003, and from 28 to 27 in 2008.