March 11, 2008 / 11:03 AM / 11 years ago

China "super-ministry" plan faces super hurdles

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday unveiled a bureaucratic revamp he hopes will foster greener, more efficient government, but experts said it was unlikely to end turf wars over industry, energy and pollution.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao listens to Supreme People's Court President Xiao Yang delivering a work report during the third plenary session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 10, 2008. Wen on Tuesday unveiled a bureaucratic revamp he hopes will foster greener, more efficient government, but experts said it was unlikely to end turf wars over industry, energy and pollution. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The reforms herd together dozens of agencies, creating “super-ministries” for industry, transport, housing and construction and the environment, and bring food and drug safety back under the Health Ministry after a series of damaging scares.

The plan is a high point of this year’s National People’s Congress, the Communist Party-run parliament that meets in full once a year to rubber-stamp policy. National leaders say it will cut red tape and clear tangled lines of responsibility.

“Problems of overlap between departments, disconnect between power and responsibility and low efficiency are still quite stark,” State Councillor Hua Jianmin, who is also secretary general of the cabinet, told the nearly 3,000 deputies.

But even some of the usually meek deputies politely wondered whether Wen’s medicine was strong enough.

“I think there still hasn’t been enough study,” deputy Ji Baocheng, president of the People’s University of China, told a cluster of reporters after Hua’s speech.

“Organizational roles have been further integrated but it seems there’s still some distance from the ideal goal of one department handling one thing.”

CLEANING UP GOVERNMENT AND POLLUTION

The plan presented to parliament upgrades the environment watchdog to ministry status, giving more prominence to the battle against pollution that has stoked rising public discontent.

“Our country faces severe environmental pressures and the task of reducing pollution emissions is extremely arduous,” said Hua.

But it was not clear what significant extra powers, if any, the new ministry would have. The plan also shied away from an energy ministry that at one point was on the drawing board for the world’s number two oil consumer.

Instead it split planning and management, with an Energy Commission to develop national strategy, and a new Energy Bureau to administer.

“If there is no energy ministry, it doesn’t seem like they are taking energy security or energy supply and demand as seriously as they should,” said Adrian Loh, energy analyst with Merrill Lynch in Singapore, in an emailed response to questions.

The National Development and Reform Commission, a sprawling industrial policy bureaucracy, would continue dominating big decisions about oil, gas and power, Loh said. “To me it remains business as usual,” he said.

New ministries for “industry and information industries” and for transport are planned. But Wen failed to corral the powerful Ministry of Railways into the transport “super ministry.”

SUPER OR DISAPPOINTING?

This is far from China’s first big bureaucratic revamp, and the results of past efforts have been less than super.

One recent study counted eight administrative overhauls since 1949, with the last under Wen’s predecessor, Zhu Rongji, in 1998 and 2003, who also vowed to dramatically streamline government.

Wen’s plan would cut some inefficiency but not transform the country’s top-down, Party-dominated approach to governing 1.3 billion people, said Ding Xueliang, a Beijing-based scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“There were also huge hopes for the reforms under Zhu Rongji in his last year,” said Ding. “I said then that you can’t expect too much. This time I retain my original view.”

The plan will remove one layer of officialdom between Premier Wen and key ministers dealing day-to-day with the country’s biggest worries — job creation, price rises, pollution — said Mao Shoulong of the People’s University of China.

He likened the current system to a filter that stops crucial information reaching leaders fast enough. “If even the best tea goes through six layers of filters, then in the end all you get is bottled water,” Mao said.

But the real battle could come once the plan rolls out and central officials, local governments and state conglomerates contend for control of key levers of power.

“The biggest obstacle to the super-ministry reforms remains sectoral interests that have become stronger over many years,” Wang Yukai of the National School of Administration, which trains officials, recently told the Web site of the People’s Daily (www.people.com.cn).

Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu, Emma Graham-Harrison, Zhou Xin and Guo Shipeng; Editing by Nick Macfie

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