The dose of bureaucratic restructuring that will introduce five “super-ministries” to China’s government seems, as far as can be discerned, to be a step in the right direction. Who could argue against a move that would eliminate redundancies, streamline decision-making and move China toward a “service-oriented government?”
While the top leadership’s motives cannot be faulted, the actions they have chosen to express their intentions are questionable. It is, after all, a contradiction in terms to increase the size and scope of a bureaucratic unit in order to improve efficiency. Physics suggests that the more mass a body accumulates, the greater its tendency to inertia.
That’s before even getting into the details. Turf battles over resources, complex chains of command and genuine confusion will surely have to be overcome before these super-ministries can function as they are supposed to. For example, how will the Ministry of Railways interact with the enlarged powers of the Ministry of Transport, which has absorbed the General Administration of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of Communication (which controlled the postal service, among other things)? How will the new environment ministry enforce policy at the provincial level, since much of the environmental enforcement apparatus is still operated by provincial governments who, it turns out, are often the biggest beneficiaries of polluting projects?
To be fair, such a massive restructuring exercise will take time to work itself out. No one supposes that this undertaking will be a simple one. But if one of the reasons for creating the super-ministries is to reduce corruption at the lower levels, as has been suggested, then the solution does not appear to address the problem directly.
Larger, more opaque bodies will not reduce corruption, no matter how direct the chain of command is to the perceived incorruptibility of the top central government leaders. A super-ministry runs the risk of becoming another multi-headed hydra, but strengthened by bureaucratic consolidation.
The issue is not the amount of power vested in some branch of the executive, but precisely the opposite: that less power is to be concentrated in the hands of the executive. Accountability is the key feature that needs to be addressed, and it has to be encouraged not through intra-government checks and balances, but by direct exposure to market forces: the people of China. In practice, this could take the form of strengthening the legislature, increasing the scope of local elections or other mechanisms. The point is, they would have the effect of holding these powerful new government entities accountable for their actions – creating a true service-oriented government.
Still, it is heartening to see that China’s leaders are not afraid of making bold moves to improve governance. A broad shift may be underway to increase the level of openness in the government and the party. Whether or not super-ministries will ultimately aid that cause, however, remains unclear.