Welcome shake-up by Beijing must now be put into practice 

Restructuring of bureaucracy, some of it on US lines, can help improve efficiency, address vested interests and give officials a sharper focus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 4:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 4:53am

China is embarking on the most ambitious restructuring of its government in decades. It is a measure of the political and administrative challenge that since the last shake-up, the country’s economy and per capita gross domestic product have both increased more than tenfold. A structure put in place in the late 1990s is under growing pressure to meet modern expectations.

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One analyst said the overhaul unveiled at the National People’s Congress was aimed at very Chinese problems, such as a lack of communication and turf wars between government institutions. These problems are not confined to the mainland. They are typical of entrenched bureaucracy from east to west, including Hong Kong. What sets China’s bureaucracy apart is its sheer size, but it can still learn from other countries, as it has shown by borrowing a few ideas from the United States. 

The restructure reduces the number of ministerial-level agencies under the State Council by eight, and vice-ministerial-level agencies by seven. But it is more than an institutional slimming or streamlining. It also reorganises and refocuses some existing ministries. The changes are part of the plan by President Xi Jinping to improve government efficiency and strengthen Communist Party control by shaking up vested interests.

One of the biggest changes merges the banking and insurance regulators, and moves some of their functions, including drafting key regulations, to the central bank. Another sets up an international cooperation agency at ministerial level to oversee a foreign aid commitment that spans the world. Perhaps the most egregious example of vested interest, as opposed to public interest, is tobacco control, administered by the industry ministry, which has close ties to the tobacco industry. The restructure moves it to a new health commission that will implement a set of rules from the World Health Organisation for the largest producer and consumer of tobacco. 

A lot of the reform follows a study of the US governing structure. For instance, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs can be compared with the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the planned immigration administration reflects the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. This is an agency China has never had at ministerial level, but needs now in keeping with its growing power and influence and the increasing engagement of its people with the rest of the world.  

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That said, governments may order restructuring but it is up to bureaucrats to implement it. Reducing the number of ministries cuts their number and in some cases a layer of bureaucracy. Hopefully, the shake-up will give officials a sharper focus, so they can better implement the most important changes for many years.