Are Deep Reforms Coming for China's Administrative Government?

The People's Republic might be on the cusp of major bureaucratic changes that would leave a lasting policy impact.


Sheng Li/Reuters

For those seeking hints of political reforms in the wake of China's recent leadership transition, here is a piece of glad tidings: A round of bureau downsizing led by the State Council is likely to come soon. Although not confirmed by any official source yet, a detailed plan to make "super-ministries" out of existing governmental organs has gone viral among Chinese web users. A tweet about the possible reforms from one Weibo user, @卞大巍, which included a link to the rumored plan, was re-tweeted almost 9,000 times.

It's said the plan is being discussed within China's State Council. Some of the rumored measures, which are surprisingly bold, would fundamentally change the landscape of China's governmental system if turned into reality:

  • The power of the National Development and Reform Commission, the State Council's omnipotent arm that sets developmental agendas and coordinates economic activities, would face new limits. The commission -- a living fossil of an organization from China's planned-economy days -- would focus on planning and regulation at the macro level and relinquish its oversight over "micro-level" administrative matters such as adjusting prices of gasoline and, more importantly, its power to approve projects.
  • The Ministry of Railways would become a division in the Ministry of Transportation. Also a legacy from the planned-economy era, the Ministry of Railways has been increasingly criticized for its dual role as both a supervisor of China's massive railway industry and a player in the railroad business. Many expect this rumored change to be the first step toward breaking the state's monopoly on the railway industry.
  • The National Population and Family Planning Commission would be merged with the Ministry of Health, becoming the Ministry of Population and Health. The waning of the commission's power hints that the one-child policy could soon be loosened in response to China's aging population and forced abortions in certain parts of the country.
  • Rumored changes would also befall the media and financial sectors. The infamous State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), two major enactors of media censorship, would be merged into the Ministry of Culture. The Banking Regulatory Commission, the Securities Regulatory Commission and the Insurance Regulatory Commission would be combined into a new Regulatory Commission of Finance.

The implications of such a restructuring would range far and wide. Wang Binshan (@山言両语), professor of urban planning at Tsinghua University, took to Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, to express his excitement about potential reforms in his field:

Should the super-ministry system [大部制] be in effect, it would not only streamline government organs but prevent inconsistency among government agencies. The merging of the Ministry of Land and Resources into the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development would herald an end to the separation of urban planning from overall land management. Fewer real-estate projects would be able to exploit loopholes in the land management system. In addition, the merging of the National Tourism Administration and the Administration of Cultural Heritage into the Ministry of Culture would improve the relationship among tourism development, preservation of historic relics and cultural inheritance.

Of course, as with all re-allocations of power, the rumored changes would pose great threats to many interest groups. It's certain that the project will be subject to bargaining and horse-trading among various authorities before it passes from rumor to reality. @甘肃郝志强 is rather pessimistic about possible results: "The reform plans will not be finalized until approved by the National People's Congress next spring at earliest. The rearrangement of ministries is so complicated and involved with so many interest groups. Some of the rumored measures, such as the abolition of local taxation bureaus, are ridiculously impossible. Do you think such ministry-level reforms is a game of Legos?"

Nevertheless, if history is any guide, a round of reforms is likely to take place in the near future. Since 1982, a spate of new measures to reorganize China's bureaucracy has followed the close of each National Party Congress. The previous six waves of reforms have reduced the number of ministries under the State Council from 100 to 27. Not only did the downsizing efforts enhance administrative efficiency and coherence, but also transferred power to the private market. @先知元 gives a good illustration. "The super-ministry reform is not simply merging some ministries together. At the core is the thinking that the government should take a laissez-faire approach to economic affairs and minimize interference with the market -- the principle being that the government would not intervene in any matter that the market could resolve by itself. As the government's power wanes, the number of ministries and staff would decrease naturally."

However, some Internet commentators are concerned about the reform's potential negative impacts. @墨鉅 worries that the centralization of power caused by the downsizing, given the absence of effective checks and balances, would lead to abuse. "Super-ministry systems in Western countries aim to increase efficiency, but in China, without public elections, without checks and balances from the congress and the judiciary, I don't know how many evil things those 'huge big hands' would do."

Moreover, @大彭山人 points out that any attempt to streamline government organs will fail if the number of government officials does not shrink. "I hope that after the reforms are implemented, the State Council would tell us how many jobs and officials are downsized. That's what people really care about. Some previous restructuring efforts ended up changing only signs on the door. This kind of reform ... has no real meaning."

Underlying those different concerns is the same message: The super-ministry reforms cannot not fully achieve their goals if political reforms in other sectors do not catch up.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.