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China outlines ‘super-ministries’ plan

Times Staff Writer

China announced a reorganization Tuesday aimed at improving government performance in troubled sectors such as energy, food safety and the environment. But analysts said it was a relatively cautious plan that still left room for fiefdoms and turf battles among sharp-elbowed bureaucrats.

Under the outline submitted to the National People’s Congress, five “super-ministries” would be created and several agencies abolished or revamped, according to the state-run New China News Agency.

This is the sixth major overhaul since China embarked on market reform in the late 1970s, unleashing the entrepreneurial energy of the nation’s 1.3 billion people and leaving the Communist Party-led government struggling to keep up. Some measure of reform had been expected when the National People’s Congress opened its two-week session March 5.

The new ministries would oversee transportation, construction, environmental protection, social security and information policy, including the Internet.

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But other government agencies managed to resist consolidation. Efforts to create a separate energy ministry were unsuccessful. Instead, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission retained control of a newly created National Energy Commission, which is designed to coordinate energy policy.

The powerful Railway Ministry, which controls a system that carries 1.5 billion passengers a year, also retained its independence rather than being folded into the proposed transportation ministry.

“It’s a pity the Railway Ministry wasn’t consolidated,” said Rong Chaohe, professor at Beijing Jiaotong University. “We’ve had so many ministries that in the end, no one ends up taking responsibility.”

Nonetheless, he said, the reforms were a step forward.

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One analyst noted that the government took a conservative approach to the consolidation and the number of jobs affected, thereby reducing chances that the changes will face resistance. “They decided to take one step rather than five,” said Mao Shoulong, a professor of administration at People’s University in Beijing.

Bureaucratic resistance is hardly new in China, which is blessed and cursed with one of the world’s oldest ministerial systems. Many of the innovations forged during the Middle Kingdom’s earlier history, including civil service entrance exams based on merit, were considered revolutionary in their day.

But China’s entrenched bureaucrats also have a long history of bribery, arrogance and micromanaging that is hard to give up as their role switches from issuing orders to supervising people and industries.

“When an official is promoted, even their dogs and chickens are elevated,” a Chinese proverb says.

Shortly after the Communists took over in 1949, China had about 30 ministries. But by the 1970s, these had ballooned to about 100 ministries and powerful agencies as central planners adopted the Soviet model in obsessively controlling the economy.

In the 1980s, reportedly wary of what the politicized bureaucracy had done during the Cultural Revolution, leader Deng Xiaoping engineered a major reform with a then- striking proposition: Government officials should have technical skills, not just political credentials. “Veteran revolutionaries end up as monsters and ghosts,” he once said, expressing wariness of vested interests.

Deng displayed a keen understanding of the bureaucratic mind, and many downsized officials were allowed to continue reading confidential documents, ensure that plum jobs went to family members, and hold on to perquisites in return for stepping aside. As the economy became increasingly open in later years, however, subsequent ministry reforms were not as gentle.

“Creating super-ministries is a long-term project,” said Wang Yukai, a professor with Beijing’s National School of Administration. “This won’t be completed in a single move.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Wu Yixiu and Gao Wenhuan of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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