Super ministries may not be the right answer for mainland China

Li Keqiang has pushed for super ministries but analysts see problems in forcing such bureaucratic giants to deregulate in years to come

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 8:47am

It has become a ritual for new Chinese leaders to announce a shake-up of government in the name of streamlining bureaucracy and more importantly, to signal a fresh start.

And it's no exception for Li Keqiang, whose elevation as the mainland's next premier will be approved at the annual session of the National People's Congress, starting tomorrow.

On Friday, the Communist Party's Central Committee endorsed Li's proposal for restructuring the State Council, aiming to "build a service-oriented government … that is clean and efficient, and which satisfies the people".

Details of the proposal are under wraps until discussed and approved by the NPC session, but that's just a formality.

Judging from state media reports, the scale of the latest round of restructuring is smaller than previous ones.

Li has reportedly proposed forming a more powerful ministry to oversee the quality and safety of food and medicine, and expand the scope of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, to shoulder more social responsibilities, and the State Oceanic Administration at a time of maritime disputes with neighbouring countries. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television is expected to be merged with the General Administration of Press and Publication to form a new agency to regulate the media industry, while the controversial National Population and Family Planning Commission will be absorbed into the Ministry of Health.

The most significant development is likely to be the break-up of the powerful Ministry of Railways, which has been plagued with corruption scandals. It will be absorbed into the enlarged Ministry of Transport, which also oversees civil aviation, land and water transport.

If confirmed, it will mark a small but sweet victory for Li who has been pushing for so-called super ministries, which are aimed at combining and consolidating functions of various rival and overlapping smaller ministries and government agencies.

Li first started to push for the super ministries five years ago, when he had limited success, but he ran into stiff resistance from the Ministry of Railways which acted like an independent kingdom with more than two million employees.

Things changed in Li's favour after a July 2011 crash of a high-speed train in Wenzhou , Zhejiang province, that killed 40 people and the sacking of railways minister Liu Zhijun over allegations of corruption in the same year.

But his ambitious plan to create bigger ministries in charge of finance, energy and culture seems to be off the table this time, reflecting the scale of difficulties and the threat posed to jobs of high-level bureaucrats.

And, bigger may not be better. Analysts have expressed worries that bigger ministries may mean a grab for more power.

Some analysts, including Wang Yukai , a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance under the State Council, told state media that five super ministries created under reform measures in 2008 produced mixed results. Indeed, how to force the bigger ministries to deregulate and decentralise may prove to be an even more arduous task for Li in years to come.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is the earliest example of a super ministry. It was formed in 2003 and evolved from the State Planning Commission, a key ministry in the days of the planned economy.

Its purpose is to draft national economic and social development plans and undertake various economic reforms. But in reality, it has become a super powerful ministry with broad regulatory powers covering all the major industries.

Some cynics argue that it has been the biggest stumbling block to structural reforms.

By tradition, the premier oversees the NDRC, along with the Ministry of Finance and several other ministries.

How Li forces the NDRC to deregulate will be a litmus test of his ability to tackle bureaucracy.