Reduction in ministries to increase efficiency

China’s new leadership on Sunday unveiled the most significant government restructuring plan in more than a decade, announcing the dismantling and merging of several crucial Cabinet-level ministries with the aim, said officials, of reducing the government’s role and promoting non-governmental and market forces.

The plan includes breaking up the vast and influential Ministry of Railways — which has recently been embroiled in corruption scandals; and merging the powerful Family Planning authority, in charge of enforcing family planning rules, with the Health Ministry — a move seen as a possible first step in reforming the unpopular restrictions known commonly as the ‘one-child policy’.

The new measures were outlined here on Sunday by the State Council, or Cabinet, amid the ongoing annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament, which will formalise the appointment of officials to head the new government under Xi Jinping.

Mr. Xi, who replaced Hu Jintao as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and as head of the military in November last year, will be appointed President in the coming week. Second-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member Li Keqiang is expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier and head of the State Council.

First reform measure

The restructuring is the first major reform measure announced by the new leadership under Mr. Xi, who has emphasised tackling corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency since taking over last year. The State Council said the restructuring plan reflected the government’s desire “to not meddle in what is not in our business”.

It called on the government “to ensure the market’s fundamental role in allocating resources and to let social organisations play a better role in managing social issues”, suggesting a loosening of some controls on NGOs, besides those involved in political and religious affairs which face tight scrutiny.

The most significant restructuring measure proposed the dismantling of the influential Ministry of Railways, which has, in the past, operated as possibly the most powerful and wealthy State agency. The ministry has been roiled by recent corruption scandals that led to the sacking of former Minister Liu Zhijun and exposed an alarming lack of oversight.

Now, the Ministry will function under the Ministry of Transport, which will handle its administration with an aim to increase the “integration efficiency of various transport means”.

The commercial functions will be handled by a separate China Railway Corporation company.

The plan has also sanctioned the setting up of a unified National Oceanic Administration (NOA) to strengthen and centralise China’s maritime law enforcement forces amid a rising number of disputes, with Japan over East China Sea islands and with half a dozen countries in the South China Sea.

In recent months, officials and analysts warned that an uncoordinated response from coast guards and maritime forces run by different ministries had prevented efficient and nimble reactions to the increasingly frequent clashes between fishing boats and naval vessels from China and other countries.

Conflicting mandates

A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) last year pointed to “the conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies ….have stoked tensions in the South China Sea”.

Now, a unified National Oceanic Administration (NOA) will supervise all of China’s maritime law enforcement forces, including the coast guards, fisheries forces and anti-smuggling agencies, and will be charged with “better safeguarding the country’s maritime rights and interests”, the State Council said.

  • Powerful but graft-wracked Railway Ministry dismantled and brought under Transport

  • Bringing family planning under Health seen as reforming ‘one-child policy’