Cutting through the red tape

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 1:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 1:02am

When reforms imposed from the top can be stalled by lower-tier authorities; when a state leader has to openly hit out at officials for foot-dragging, something is clearly amiss. In a State Council meeting this week, Premier Li Keqiang reportedly launched into a tirade when he learned that some central government decisions were held up by paperwork at lower levels. He lamented the delay as a joke and questioned whether the work process had been turned upside down.

The outburst was not his first. The top leader has at least twice openly lashed out at bureaucratic inertia and red tape. Earlier this year he vowed to use name-and-shame tactics against those with a slack work attitude.

Li's frustration speaks volume of the problems across Chinese officialdom. There is a misconception that China is still governed like an ancient kingdom in which an imperial decree sent from the Forbidden City quickly infiltrates down the hierarchy. But as the saying goes, "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away" - that explains why orders made by Zhongnanhai (the seat of power) have been ridiculed as something that would seldom go beyond the government compound. Local officials often find ways to ignore the orders or twist them to suit their own needs. Separately, red tape is still compromising work efficiency. It is typical for a project to obtain the stamp of approval from more than 100 agencies.

Adding to the problem is the clash of interests between the central government and municipal authorities. As the reforms pushed by Li involve streamlining hierarchy and delegation of power, many officials fear their powers and privileges will be undermined. Resistance is therefore not uncommon. There have been suggestions that the reforms are being hampered by a so-called tunnel effect, with the directives weakening as they penetrate down the hierarchy.

The procrastination amid a continuous slowdown in economic growth is a matter of concern. However well-intentioned the reforms are, it does not help if red tape and political interests are standing in the way. It is good that Li has not shied away from speaking out against the problems in public. Transparency is instrumental to good governance. The enhanced transparency can, hopefully, strengthen public monitoring on officials' performance and pressure them to work towards the common goal.