State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) Vice-Minister Pan Yue knows best the embarrassment and difficulties associated with his and his subordinates' job. He knows, too, the reason for that: SEPA's weak position in the government hierarchy.
SEPA is not one of the 28 ministries directly under the State Council, the country's cabinet. Hence, it can't take part in the direct decision-making process. And local officials who pay scant regard to the environment in their rush to achieve speedy economic growth exploit that weakness.
But that no longer will be the case, thanks to the plan to restructure and merge some of the ministries that the National People's Congress (NPC) discussed at its annual session yesterday. Among the proposals is one to make SEPA a full-fledged ministry, granting it the authority to be part of major decisions. "The move is consistent with the central government's efforts to enforce its anti-pollution regulations and to pressure heavy industries further into complying or closing down," says professor of the Party School of CPC Central Committee Zhou Tianyong.
SEPA's elevation is just one of the new shake-up plans. The institutional restructuring proposed at the NPC session yesterday is a continuation of the five major government reshuffles in the past 30 years, says State Councilor Hua Jianmin. The restructuring addresses the most urgent social demand of setting up a State energy commission too. The commission is to serve as a unified energy watchdog and coordinate the national strategy.
In fact, the entire restructuring exercise is aimed at lessening government control over the market and making it shift its focus to administrative matters and services. It will re-arrange in a more rational manner the functions of government departments that exercise macro-economic regulation in reference to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the People's Bank of China.
Central-level ministries, commissions and departments with overlapping functions have been merged into five "super ministries" to "boost administrative efficiency and reduce cost". Four ministry-level departments and commissions will no longer be there because their different wings have been merged with or into 15 ministries or commissions. The new "super ministries" are those of Industry and Information, Human Resources and Social Security, Environmental Protection, Housing and Urban-Rural Construction, and Transport.
An expert with Peking University's School of Government, Zhang Guoqing, says the restructuring is a significant step in the country's administrative reforms. "The government will now focus on policymaking, providing service and supervision instead of intervening in micro-economic operation." For instance, industrial management functions of the existing Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense will now be part of the new Ministry of Industry and Information.
"Fragmented management functions led to disproportional industrial policies, prompting ministries to cross their threshold of supervision and intervene in enterprises' operations," says National School of Administration (NSA) researcher Gu Ping'an. "Only unified ministries can plan, supervise and coordinate comprehensively for total industrial development."
Social problems and needs have drawn planners' attention in a big way, says Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member Chi Fulin. "Unlike earlier restructurings, which mainly cut the number of ministries, the present one focuses on shifting government functions from economy-building to public service and addressing the most urgent social ills," says Chi, who is also the executive director of China (Hainan) Institute of Reform and Development.
"Food regulation in the country is too fragmented now" because responsibilities for food safety are shared by at least six departments: the SFDA, the ministries of Health, Agriculture and Commerce, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce and the General Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine. Another good thing about this restructuring is that it clarifies the new Ministry of Health's role in food safety supervision, which had become very important after the recent food scandals.
Property prices have risen sharply in the past few years, Zhou says, making it difficult or almost impossible for many urban middle-income and poor families to buy a house. "That's why the inclusion of rural construction in the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction signifies a major move."
The present Minister of Labor and Social Security, Tian Chengping, says the merging of the Ministry of Personnel and his ministry into the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security will provide a national platform from where the whole country's human resources can be coordinated. According to Zhou: "The merger will help streamline all the procedures, from employment to social security," too.
Though other countries have tried the super-ministries model of government with success, experts warn against their unchecked power. "Since the super-ministries will have more power, they will have to be watched more carefully," says NSA professor Wang Yukai. It's important that the legislature makes necessary adjustments to counter the negative effects of administrative restructuring and creation of super-ministries.
"The most effective bind on the super-ministries should be from outside, including supervision by people's congresses at different levels, law enforcement departments, the public and even the media," Wang says.
Experts also question whether the super-ministries model could check some departments growing impulse to protect their own interests. This could prove to be difficult, especially because the ministries will now have more power. Take the transport department for example. Peking University economics researcher Chen Liangwen says there used to be competition in the transportation sector because there was more than one transport department. "But what if they form a monopoly in every transport sector now? We consumers would have no choice but to accept it."
Another fear is a number of ministries or ministry-level commissions could be back to their original status, just like it happened after earlier shake-ups, says Chen. The best possible way to prevent the spreading up of government bureaus is to comply strictly by the government budget and for the government not to grant even a single cent for any additional staff, he says.
The reforms won't be a success only with the mergers and reduction of ministries, say other experts. It'll take a long time to bear fruits, and the road to success is full of obstacles. In fact, Chi warns it could take longer that usual for the government to overcome the obstacles and complete the restructuring.
Realistic concerns include how to relocate leaders of the ministries or commissions that have been scrapped or how long will it take for the new ministries to get integrated into the administration.
Wang says more administrative reforms are needed to fulfill the needs of the market economy. The huge size of and overlapping-of-functions model of the government is the result of the planned economy. Take for example the erstwhile Ministry of Mechanics and Industries. It had nine departments, each of which was in charge of just one industry, from electronic products and machinery to aircraft.
Though the administrative reforms since the late 1970s and the demands of the market economy have helped cut the number of subordinate departments, there are still 28 at the ministerial level under the central government. Compared to it, the Japanese government has 12, the US 15, and Britain, 17.
Merging ministries gives a country's cabinet, the State Council in China's case, a more effective way for its leader to exercise control and ensure efficiency, says Wang. And that is something Premier Wen Jiabao can do with.
(China Daily March 12, 2008)