By Xufeng Zhu.

The occasion of the “Two Meetings” convening in Beijing from March 5-16, has stimulated public interest in the new round of bureaucratic reconstruction. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced its intention to build a “Big Ministry System” at the 2007 CCP National Congress, the idea of bureaucratic reconstruction reform seemed inspiring. The goals of the reform, as the People’s Daily explained, were to settle the problem of too many agencies, trivial functional divisions and inefficient coordination in the Chinese public administrative system. The functional overlapping of government agencies had resulted in conflicting policies released by different bureaucracies in one policy field. Moreover, it was said that the power of ministerial agencies was too great, resulting in the encumbrance of administrative commands from Zhongnanhai when central policies came to be implemented.

The reform became a hot topic in society as soon as it was announced. Many scholars suggested, through mass media, various versions of the blueprints regarding the structure of the big ministries. Some high-level officials in government agencies also disclosed some reform versions that were still under deliberation when they were asked by news reporters.

In early 2008, a bureaucratic reconstruction scheme was eventually approved by the National People’s Congress (NPC). However, the final scheme seemed to confound expectations of observers both within and outside the country. Only 5 ministries were newly established or reorganized with integrated governmental functions. In terms of the number of Chinese ministries, the number of original ministries (28) was only reduced by one.

“Bureaucratic politics” has been widely used to analyze the (failed) outcome of decision making on the big ministry system reform by the central government. According to Hong Kong publication Ta Kung Pao’s analysis, the reform toward a big ministry system encountered four obstacles: integrating power, dispersing redundant personnel, gelling mechanisms, and monitoring operations. Some media based outside Mainland China analyzed the big ministry system reform saying that Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who led the reform, did not have enough authority to deal with bureaucratic resistance. Moreover, commentators believed that the leaders of various bureaucracies used their personal network resources to prevent their bureaucratic interests from being impacted or to prevent their positions from being cut should their agencies be integrated.

Why did the central government decide to launch an administrative reconstruction aiming to build the “Big Ministry System”? One purpose of the reform was to solve problems such as bureaucratic power and administrative obstacles on commands from Zhongnanhai. Yet, if bureaucratic power had already become too great to command, wouldn’t it would become even greater if the agencies were integrated into even larger ministries. It is obviously more acceptable that in order to solve the problem of a bureaucratic power being too great, ministries should be divided into several smaller government agencies. Moreover, dividing agencies would not encounter much resistance because the greater number of small agencies, the greater the number of leaders at the ministerial level. The puzzle makes us to rethink about the rationality of the bureaucratic reconstruction reform before and after.

The idea behind the big ministry system is actually related to the reform of the public service government. In the CCP Congress Report, the idea of the reform toward a big ministry system appeared in the section “Accelerating Administrative Reform; Constructing Service Government”. This means that the direction of accelerating administrative reform is the creation of a public service government, and one of the measures for this is to explore ways to establish a big ministry system. Therefore, the eventual target of the big ministry reform was creating a public service government. Unfortunately, there were very few discussions about the association between the public service government and the big ministry system in Chinese academia.

In fact, whether public bureaucracies with similar functions should be integrated or co-exist has been a disputed theoretical topic in the field of public administration for decades. The argument that supports the integration of agencies with similar functions originated from Olson’s logic of collective action. The theory argues that if agencies with similar public functions co-exist, the efficiency of public goods and services provision by related agencies will decrease. The Chinese proverb “nine dragons govern the river” refers to just this problem of collective action.

There is another theory, “bureaucratic redundancy”, which suggests that the state should deliberately set up agencies with overlapping public functions. Bureaucratic redundancy theory argues that a monopoly on public services will result in low efficiency in the public sector, while competition introduced during public services provision may increase the efficiency of the public sector. As we can see, some large Chinese ministries that have monopolized administrative powers in public services have been subject to frequent criticism from the public.

The US deliberately set up bureaucracies with overlapping functions in many administrative fields. For example, the responsibilities of forecasting, planning, and managing the financial budget are shared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Aside from the independent Air Force, each branch of the US military has its own “air force.” After the 1975 Watergate incident, the Office of Professional Responsibility was founded in the Department of Justice. However, the Office of the Inspector General was established in the Department of Justice in 1989. Both of the two offices are responsible for investigating internal malfeasance.

In recent years, the Chinese government has itself engaged in economic activities. However, the public services provided by the government have been inclined to take the path of “privatization” in order to pass the costs of running services to the private sector. Chinese leaders have acknowledged the public’s tremendous need for public services and that the government should redirect itself to its basic duty toward regulation and providing public services. For the purpose of providing public services more efficiently, reorganizing the government structure became an urgent task of administrative reform. Consequently, the “Big Ministry System” reform was a balance made by the central decision makers with the two logics of collective action and bureaucratic redundancy. As a result, some ministries with similar functions were merged whereas others continue to co-exist. Thus, if we look at the 2008 scheme of bureaucratic reconstruction through the lens of building a public service government, the decision making outcome is not so impenetrable.

Moreover, if we would like to evaluate the accomplishment of the Big Ministry System Reform since 2008, we need to have a look at the trends and the results of public services provided by the government. For example, since 2008, many public service sectors, such as public health, education, and social security, have been strengthened and the path of “privatization” in public services has been redirected. As a result, the newly publicized Gini Coefficient data in the past 10 years show that the gap between the richer and the poorer has gradually narrowed since 2008. Many people may contest that the “absolute” data announced by the National Bureau of Statistics are miscalculated, but the “relative trends” of statistical data should be believable. Therefore, we may conclude, considering that the goal of the Big Ministry System Reform is to build a more efficient government that provides public services, conservatively speaking, the result of the reform at least did not make the situation worse.

The 2012 report at the 18th CCP National Congress again emphasized steady progress in the Big Ministry System Reform. For its next step, the Chinese central government should consider maintaining the good trends toward a more equal society through building public service government. Some problems that remain after the first round of the big ministry system reform should be settled. For example, some ministerial agencies’ power is still too great, and some governmental organs with overlapping functions need to be further integrated. Moreover, the 2008 bureaucratic reconstruction did not deal with the rent seeking and corruption of government officials well enough. I look forward to a “better” big ministry system reform being approved during the NPC meeting.

Xufeng Zhu is Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University. He is the author of The Rise of Think Tanks in China. His recent publications include articles in Public Administration, The China Quarterly & Policy Sciences.

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