March 3, 2013, by Editor

Reforms and Restructuring at the NPC Session: Managing Expectations

By Zhengxu Wang.

This year’s Lianghui, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and People’s Political Consultative Conference (PPCC), is important in the sense that a new government will be “sworn in”. Following last November’s Party Congress, the Premier-in-waiting will be confirmed at the NPC session. He will take up his position together with a whole new cabinet—following the forming of a new Central Committee of the Party, ministers are expected to be reappointed as well, with a five year term ahead.

But the more critical question is what policy initiatives will the new government press ahead in order to show that it is the right government for the country. The new Party leadership emerged out of the last November’s Party Congress carries a strong mandate of “reform”. Now that the honeymoon effect between the new leadership team and the country is starting to fade away, citizens are watching carefully what the leadership indeed has to offer in terms of real actions.

Before the Party’s Congress, there was already indication that the new leadership team would take structural reforms quite seriously. There was indication that Xi Jinping was already commissioning reform proposals throughout the last 1-2 years. Li Keqiang, to be confirmed as Premier at this Lianghui, was also quick to signal that he was a reform guy and his government will take concrete reform measures. But it will be too early to expect the leadership team to roll out a comprehensive reform plan at this Lianghui. Between the conclusion of November’s Party Congress and this Lianghui, there was simply not enough time to forge a consensus among the Party elite.

The main preoccupation of the last three months have been lining up the provincial leaders and working out the political appointments of state agencies, which will be unveiled at the end of the NPC session. In fact, the Party Plenum (the second of this new Central Committee) that closed last night (28 Feb 2013) explicitly said in its communique that it had agreed on the political appointment list for state agencies. It did not give explicit promises of reform policies that are soon to come.

Indeed, a real “blueprint” or “roadmap” of comprehensive structure reforms will wait until, very likely, the Third Party Plenum, to be held in autumn this year. Therefore, while trying to maintain the “image” of a reform-minded leadership, the NPC session will avoid committing to quickly to any real reform plans. Instead, it will focus on installing the new government. Media attention will be drawn to who gets which ministerial and deputy state positions.

The role of State Councillor succeeding Dai Bingguo, for example, has been drawing a lot of speculation. The person will oversee China’s foreign affair process. Nor has it been made clear who the new foreign minister will be. Who will take up the position of minister of treasury is also intriguing. And in the last few weeks there were reports that Zhou Xiaochuan, despite being left out of the new Central Committee, will stay as the governor of the People’s Bank, China’s central bank. Another critical development is the unveiling of a new plan to restructure the State Council. Yesterday the Party Plenum’s Communique did say that the Plenum approved such a plan, which will be officially proposed to the People’s Congress.

The urge to downsize and streamline the State Council has been strong. Starting from earlier last year, a document emerged on the internet containing allegedly leaked information of the Party’s plan to restructure the State Council ministries. Some of the ideas in that document sound quite radical, but upon closer examination they made a lot of sense. For example, it proposed the Ministry of Railways to be closed down and the regional railway bureaus converted into for-profit commercial firms. The regulatory function of the Ministry can be relocated to the Ministry of Transportation.

Similar rumours abound on the eve of this Lianghui. A researcher affiliated with the General Administration of Forestry told us late last year that there was indeed deliberation that the Administration will be merged with Ministry of Agriculture. Other agencies that might be merged include the National Population and Family Planning Commission, the three General Bureaus of Radio and TV, Publishing and Sports, and so on.

What is different in this round’s government restructuring is the low profile nature of the discussion. Five years ago, there was very heated discussion of an imminent “dabuzhi (grand ministry) reform” before the Lianghui. But in the end the so-called ’grand ministry‘ reform attempted in 2008 did not seem to gain much mileage. There existed public expectation that several ministries were to be closed down and that the government would emerge more competent and efficient. But the outcome was highly disappointing.

A wave of public disillusion followed, pointing to the leadership’s inability to introduce real reform.
By framing the proposal simply as a plan of State Council’s “organizational reform and functional reorientation” (zhineng zhuanbian), Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are trying to manage the public’s expectation low.

Given the very complex nature of the reform tasks lying ahead, that’s probably a smart thing to do.

Dr. Zhengxu Wang is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. A modified version of this post was published in the South China Morning Post on 6 March under the title “Lesson in Patience”.

Posted in Politics