China Inches Toward a Slimmer Bureaucracy

Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photograph by Feng Li/Getty Images

In China’s never-ending effort to slim its central bureaucracy, Beijing plans next month to restructure the cabinet-like State Council. Some ministries will be merged, and others will get expanded responsibilities in moves to be unveiled at the annual National People’s Congress, which opens on March 5. That is also when China’s new party secretary, 59-year-old Xi Jinping, will assume the presidency and 57-year-old Li Keqiang will become premier.

China’s Central Committee, the several hundred-member party leadership body, will meet Feb. 26 to 28 to discuss the proposed government revamp. The plans for an administrative restructuring were also endorsed at a much smaller meeting of the 25-member Politburo over the weekend, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. “It was agreed that efforts will be made to achieve simpler and decentralized administration as well as push forward institutional reform,” Xinhua reported Feb. 23. “More efforts should be made to improve administrative efficiency and the socialist market economic system,” the report said, without specifying details.

China has been reforming its government management structure since the launch of economic reforms under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. The overarching aim is to change its bureaucracy from one suited to managing a centrally planned economy to one more conducive to a market-oriented system. Earlier efforts, such as those in 1998, 2003, and 2008 (which all followed shortly after five-year Party Congresses), have reduced the total number of ministries and commissions to 27 today. That compares with the several dozen-plus that existed 15 years ago. That number is expected to fall slightly during this latest restructuring, but by how much is still unclear.

The Ministry of Railways, sullied by a massive corruption scandal and the 2011 high-speed rail crash that killed dozens, will likely be merged into the Ministry of Transport, according to Chinese media reports. Caijing magazine reported on its website that it’s also likely that widened responsibilities will be given to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which is already in charge of everything from disaster relief to adoption policies, and China’s State Oceanic Administration will get a bigger but unspecified role.

Still, implementing the latest reform efforts isn’t likely to be easy, given the entrenched interests in the current system. “Whenever a new leadership takes over, they try to push forward with government restructuring, but it’s very difficult, because everyone is vying for power and no one wants to give it up,” Ding Xueliang, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology who teaches contemporary Chinese politics, told Bloomberg News. “Xi and Li may only be able to push through a watered-down version of what they want.” (Neither leader has publicly stated what he hopes to achieve.)

And the planned ministerial restructuring may not be as important in boosting China’s economy as other less flashy but crucial reforms, says Andrew Batson, research director at the China-focused consultancy GK Dragonomics in Beijing. China’s economy grew 7.8 percent in 2012, its slowest pace in 13 years. “There are a large number of day-to-day barriers in terms of getting approvals, getting chops [a kind of signature], that companies have to go through in China,” says Batson. “The question that is uppermost for me: Will there be a push to reduce the amount of red tape and bureaucracy that private enterprises face as they try to go about doing business, or is this just an internal rearrangement of the structure of bureaucracy?”

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