By David BandurskiMilitary spending, inflation and terrorist conspiracies may be dominating the China headlines in the West, but the big news on the home court this week is China’s push for reform of its numerous government ministries to create more streamlined super-ministries — a process known in Chinese as da bu zhi gaige (大部制改革).
As the National People’s Congress proposal for widespread ministry reform tops the official agenda, one of the most pleasant surprises is the way a number of mainland commentators are either downplaying or analyzing seriously what others are simply ballyhooing as a grand vision for change.
In a news release Monday, the official China News Service enthusiastically jumped the gun with the headline: “Ministry reform proposal on March 11 to embody thinking on ‘separation of powers.'”
Wow! Really?
That was quite a bold claim for yesterday’s NPC proposal considering that “separation of the three powers,” or san quan fenli (三权分立), historically has a somewhat sensitive association (and rightfully so) with Western-style democracy. It wasn’t long ago that this buzzword was on the list of taboos.
Given the usual understanding of “separation of powers”, the trias politica, the China News Service report’s claim was also entirely implausible. How can you have separation of powers within a single branch of government? These “reforms,” let’s remember, are to be confined to the State Council .
But we are seeing the term — and everywhere. So what’s going on? More on this question further down.


[ABOVE: Screenshot of online coverage at of a Southern Weekend graph comparing the number of government ministries in various countries. From left: China, U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.]

First things first, the general idea behind “ministry reform” is to merge various government agencies to eliminate overlapping responsibilities (政府职能交叉问题), resulting (hopefully) in greater efficiency and cost-saving.
The topic has actually been in the headlines for several months in China. A January 24 article run on and other websites talked about the pending merger of government agencies dealing with the telecoms industry, including the Ministry of Information Industry .
The Beijing Star reported, also back in January, that reforms would begin with modest experimentation in 2008, with more ambitious changes slated for 2009. Mergers would probably begin, the paper said, with the creation of a National Bureau of Energy subsuming related departments.
We now see that this is the case. China’s ministry reform proposal does include the creation of a National Bureau of Energy, as well as the following five ministries: the Ministry of Industry and Information, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction and Social Security and the Ministry of Transport. [More from AFP here].
Official party newspapers have loudly touted “ministry reforms” this week, and identical online feature spreads appeared at major Web portals aggregating news, history and favorable commentary on the topic.
Behind the rhetoric, however, there are some very basic questions that leave “ministry reforms” landing, according to some readings, with an inconsequential THUD. Given the party’s clear efforts to champion these so-called reforms, it is interesting that we should be hearing these dissenting views at all.
Yesterday’s The Beijing News included a fairly comprehensive dialogue between three academics with somewhat varying, but mostly positive, takes on ministry reforms.
First off, Liu Xutao (刘旭涛), a professor at the China National School of Administration, expressed his support for ministry reforms, emphasizing that they did not mean bigger government. Instead, he said these latest reform efforts were part of an overall attempt to make government more responsive to the needs of the people.
Another scholar participating in the dialogue, Renmin University professor Mao Shoulong (毛寿龙), was less enthusiastic about the reforms and said they faced a “number of difficulties,” notably an entrenched bureaucratic culture based on privilege rather than service.
Du Gangjian (杜钢建), a professor from Shantou University’s School of Law, emphasized that a “system of power separation”, or fen quan zhi (分权制), was an integral part of this latest push for ministry reform, distinguishing it from past shake-ups like those in the 1980s. That was critical, he said, because “if there was only a consolidation of central ministries to create bigger ministries with broader responsibilities, without a system of power separation, the result could only be the further concentration of administrative power and deepening of the government’s autocratic hue.”
Many of the views on the strength or weakness of these proposed ministry reforms seem to turn on this pivotal question of “separation of powers.”
But what exactly is meant by this “separation of powers”, which has in recent days been variously rendered in the Chinese media as san quan fenkai (三权分开), san quan fen li (三权分立) and san quan fen zhi (三权分制). Is this the move toward greater political reform we’ve been anxiously anticipating?
There are a lot of interesting issues here, but we’ll try our best to keep things simple.
The important thing to know about the notion of “separation of powers” in China is that it has transmogrified in the hands of Chinese political theorists in recent years and gained some currency among the political elite. There are now, as Wu Jiaxiang (吴稼祥) informed us on his Weblog yesterday, three separate Chinese versions of Baron de Montesquieu’s famous theory:

In terms of the notion of the value of “stand”, or li (立), [Bandurski NOTE: the Chinese term for separation of powers is literally “three + powers + separately + standing”], there are two levels we can talk about. The concept of “small government” lies behind “ministry reform,” and this cannot simply be regarded as a Chinese version of the “night-watchman state” (守夜人) we talk about for Western nations with market economies. It is in fact the political ideal of non-action (or wu wei, 无为) as it arises in Taoism (NOTE: the phrase in Lao Zi goes: “道常无为,而无不为。侯王若能守之,万物将自化.”] On another level, this “stand” means separation of powers (分权). For this, Zheng Xinli (郑新立), vice-director of the CCP’s Policy Research Center, offers a very good explanation. He says that as a key component of administrative system reforms (行政体制改革), carrying out super-ministry reforms with an accord on responsibilities is an irresistible trend, and that thinking on “separation of the three powers” of “decision-making, implementation and monitoring” would be revealed in the process of State Council system reforms. Ministry reforms will encompass “separation of powers.”

This “separation of powers” of course is still not the “separation of powers” Montesquieu spoke of. Separation of powers can be divided into three types — small, medium and large (大中小). Small separation of powers is the kind of intra-departmental separation of powers Zheng Xinli is referring to. It is a kind of arrangement of administrative organs, dividing them [internally] into “decision-making, implementation and monitoring,” letting each part carry out its own responsibility. Medium separation of powers is what Montesquieu refers to. It is a kind of political arrangement pointing to the separate standing of the legislative, administrative and judicial powers, which mutually check one another. Big separation of powers points to separation of political parties and legislative and executive powers.

Wu Jiaxiang does not offer his own views on the effectiveness this so-called “small separation of powers.”
He does, however, conclude by mentioning that the appearance of “separation of powers” in public debate at all in China is a positive development. “‘Separation of powers’ was in the past a taboo term,” he writes. “That it is now a term with currency among officials, this alone is a major step forward for ministry reforms.”
But can this “small” notion of “separation of powers” really work?
For one of the most outspoken criticisms of ministry reforms and their bold claims to political reform, we can turn to an editorial appearing in last Sunday’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, by Wang Jianxun (王建勋), an assistant professor at China University of Political Science and Law.
Wang carefully picks apart the suggestion there was anything at all substantive to claims ministry reform would more effectively check abuse of power by government agencies. He also strenuously objects to the conflation of ministry reform with political reform, or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革).
The full text of Wang’s editorial follows:

During this annual session of the ‘two meetings’ (the NPC and CPPCC) one focus of attention has been ministries reform. More than a few people believe that “ministries reform” can promote a change in the role of the government, making it transform from a control posture to a service posture, that it can resolve the problem of redundancies in responsibilities and raise administrative efficiency, even that it can help promote political reform, bringing democracy and rule of law to China. It must be said that if these goals can be achieved, we should all put our hands together in applause. But if we look more carefully at the logic and preconditions of “ministries” reform, I’m afraid the outcome won’t be so ideal as we imagine.
It can be taken for granted that the main role of the ideal government is to efficiently provide public services to citizens, meeting their needs as citizens. This is easier said than done. Why? Because if a government holds power it will metamorphose, becoming the “ruler” of citizens rather than a “provider of services.” This is a puzzle for any nation, China included. Experience shows that if you want the government to become service-oriented, you must ensure power is effectively checked. That is to say, you must build a government of limited power. There are two principle means of limiting government power, and these are: 1) separation of powers, including vertical and horizontal, 2) clearly stipulating the basic rights and freedoms of citizens, and protecting these by means of the judicial system.
Returning to ministries reform, it’s tough to say whether it will be of any use in limiting power. The spearpoint of ministries reform is directed at administrative power, and this is much needed. After all, in modern society administrative power, unlike legislative power, abides everywhere and is so easily abused. People come into contact with administrative power on a daily basis — for example, the police, the commerical bureau, city inspectors — and these powers are not exercised with the same caution and gradualism we see with legislative power. Nor is administrative power as passive or procedural as judicial power. This is patently clear when we look at China, where almighty administrative power obstructs judicial and legislative power. Therefore, an important task in the checking of power must be the checking of administrative power, and this is accomplished principally through judicial and legislative power as balancing forces.
Well then, can “ministries reform” bring us closer to checking this ever-present and expanding administrative power? The answer is: not likely. Why? Because, speaking on a number of levels, “ministries reform” is about the centralization and consolidation of power and not about separating and distributing power. Put another way, it means taking what were formerly several different departments and merging them under a single department. For example, creating a large “Transportation and Transport Bureau” concentrating management authority for the areas of air transport, the rail system, highways and even ocean transport. This kind of concentration and unification not only means no particular advantage the checking of power, but in fact raises many negatives. Originally, the separate departments dealing with air, rail, highway and ocean gave rise to a definite degree of competition owing to their varying interests, and this competition often led to benefits for the consumer. The end result once these departments are merged could very well be that their competition is lost and power becomes stronger and less subject to checks and balances.
Some people might say that “ministry reform” means carrying out mutual checks and balances between decision-making, implementation and monitoring within departments. My answer to that would be that using internal department separation of powers (部门内部的分权) to limit administrative power is like hoping to summon a genie from a lamp, because expecting departments whose goals and interests are one and the same to carry out their own internal checks is just as untenable as expecting officials’ wives to ensure they are not corrupt. Said another way, the primary task of any administrative department is implementation, because decision-making depends upon legislative organs and monitoring on judicial organs, the media and public opinion. Therefore, it is not too meaningful to divide administrative departments internally into decision-making, implementation and monitoring functions.
Then there is the matter of “efficiency.” People are bound to believe that if there are fewer departments then efficiency gains will necessarily follow. This is not necessarily the case. Why? Because efficiency demands a number of different factors, for example incentive mechanisms for officials, external pressures, etc. If, for example, an official is not driven to give his job his best, it makes little difference to their work that there are fewer departments. If, for example, an official does not face the pressure of public opinion, fewer departments won’t prevent them from dragging their feet. In fact, under “consolidated ministries” (大部制) officials will have even greater power, and I’m afraid that if there is no external monitoring it will be even easier for them to slack off . . .
It is also necessary at this point to realize that inter-ministry redundancies are difficult to avoid because they arise from the complexities of social life. Establishing absolutely clear lines of responsibility is an impossible mission. The important thing is to establish coordination mechanisms to deal with departmental overlaps. When some problem arises that concerns a number of different areas, various government departments should be able to work together to resolve it.
Finally, as for that view that equates “ministry reform” with political reform (政治体制改革), there is no evidence in support of such a claim. I’m afraid that’s nothing more than wishful guesswork.

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 12, 2008, 10am HK]
UPDATE: The lead editorial in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily concludes that the present round of ministry reforms “can only be seen as a small step forward.” The following are selected portions, including the final graf:

Of course, ministry reforms need to be completed step by step, and we can’t get there with just one step. But our report card for the early stages in this war [to reform government ministries] reveals an unavoidable fact: as they go forward ministry reforms will definitely face resistance, and this resistance will be more formidable than people suppose. The root of this resistance is the tendency of government agencies to work for their own interests, a trend that has worsened in recent years. In fact, it is this tend of self-interest that has brought us to this point of overlaps in function.
Of course . . . we can see with some degree of optimism that the ruling party has already made attempts at addressing this phenomenon [of self-interested government agencies]. We hope that these attempts ultimately target the root of the problem: the fact that government departments have power but no responsibility. What is needed, clearly, is a round of real system reforms.

Page two of today’s official People’s Daily loudly touts the State Council reform plan.
UPDATE 2 (March 13, 2:44 am HK)
An editorial by Renmin University professor Zhang Ming (张鸣) in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily cuts to the heart of the issue of separation of powers and government monitoring – namely, the need for political reforms that give people’s congresses real power to represent the interests of the people:

The most crucial thing is monitoring that comes from those to whom [public] services are provided. Under China’s present system, this means monitoring from people’s delegates and from the media. Therefore, if we really want to build a service-oriented government, one intrinsic institutional need is the activation of the people’s congress system, allowing people’s congress delegates to speak on behalf of the people and not principally on behalf of the government. At the same time, we should clearly set out the media’s right to monitor government – we can’t hesitate on this, sending down a gag order at the critical moment. Of course, media might say things carelessly, but all we need is to pass the right kinds of laws, specifying what are violations, and handle cases according to that law. Moreover, those media that are careless will lose the confidence of the public and therefore lose their market. In fact, much more harmful than media speaking carelessly is the government handling things carelessly.
Without monitoring, and particularly monitoring from those who are served [by governments], there’s no such thing as a service government. This is as simple as one plus one equals two.

The following are a few Web user comments on the above editorial in the order they appear on

From Tianjin:
Zhang Ming has a great point. I’m in favor! When can we have elections for people’s congress delegates? I’d like to serve as a qualified people’s congress delegate, making petitions on the peoples’ behalf. Why wouldn’t people elect me?
From Taiyuan:
If they’re not elected, what good will it do to have them do the monitoring?
From IP 123.187.131.*
When you’re out of order and I’m helpless, all I can do is scream out, “I want the vote!”
From Hunan Province:
We should mobilize the people to monitor government policies!
From IP 122.137.241.*:
If there are no general elections there can be no real monitoring.
From Weihai City:
These ideas speak the voice of the people and set down the principles of social progress!
From IP 116.224.174.*:
Under China’s present system, this means monitoring from people’s delegates and from the media . . . . . Well, people’s congress delegates = dupes, and the media = mouthpieces.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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