New ministry needed to map out reforms

Officials won't give up power easily so concrete plans have to be drawn up to push the government to deregulate and decentralise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 5:45am

"In fact, reforms are aimed at cutting off pieces from one's own body."

That's what Wang Yang, a senior mainland official, told a panel discussion of NPC deputies from Anhui province in Beijing last week.

His words may sound sadistic but they encapsulate the enormous challenges and difficulties the mainland leadership has in pushing ahead with any major reform - political, economic or social.

This is not the first time Wang, well known for his reformist outlook, has made such a bold call for reforms.

But as a Politburo member who is expected to become a vice-premier in the new cabinet to be unveiled this Sunday, he will face a litmus test of putting his own words into action as he will be one of the key decision makers to wield the knife.

It is interesting to note that Wang, who is widely seen as a close ally of outgoing premier Wen Jiaobao, has long been one of the most vocal advocates for reform among senior mainland officials.

He will be the most prominent one following Wen's retirement on Sunday.

Wang has risen quickly up the mainland hierarchy because of his reformist views and had been rumoured to be a strong contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th congress in November, but he lost out.

Still, as a vice-premier, Wang is expected to take on an important portfolio of either industries or agriculture.

Many analysts believe that he has a good chance of making Politburo Standing Committee membership at the 19th congress in 2017.

That shows that people should pay attention to his rhetoric on reform, as it sheds some light on the thinking of the new mainland leadership.

In his speech last week, he hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the interests of the government had become a stumbling block to reform.

He said the ideological question was the key issue to solve 30 years ago when China launched reforms and opening up, but the interests of the government was now the big problem.

So much has been written by both overseas and domestic media on how vested interest groups are stalling reforms, among them certain government officials, some government departments, and even executives at state-owned firms in the monopolistic industries such as banking and energy.

This has created a myth that those vested interest groups are in fact operating in groups and can be taken individually. But the truth is that the government itself has become the biggest stumbling block to the reforms it advocates.

It helps put into context the plan unveiled yesterday for restructuring central government ministries - the seventh attempt in the past 30 years - aimed at cutting red tape and reducing official meddling in the market.

While the merging of ministries will certainly help streamline government functions, it takes much more political courage and wisdom to push the government to deregulate and decentralise, as Wang suggested that asking officials to give up power is just like asking them to cut pieces of flesh from their own bodies.

For that to happen, the mainland leadership should have a clear road map and well-thought out plans instead of taking the traditional approach of feeling the stones to cross a river.

As analysts argue, the leadership needs to set up a cabinet-level ministry to focus on studying and mapping out strategies on reforms, similar to one when Zhao Ziyang was premier back in the 1980s.

If that happens, Wang would be the most suitable candidate to head such an agency.