Course for reform charted in the inner sanctum of Chinese politics

Updated: 2014-03-05 08:39

By Zhao Yinan (China Daily)

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The bellwether conveyed by Li's 38 executive meetings in the past year was undoubtedly "reform". Of the more than 100 topics discussed around the oval table in 2013, more than 30 were related to the reform of the apparatus of government. Checking the news releases published after each meeting, the word "reform" appears 191 times. By contrast, "equality" crops up 31 times, and "justice" clocked up 11 mentions.

"That's an indication of the overriding concerns of the new leadership during its first year in office and shows the premier's determination not to change course, but to proceed with the implementation of change," Peng said. "The government is able, maybe for the first time in many years, to sacrifice a small amount of economic growth in exchange for the chance to resolve some deep-seated problems."

When mapping out his strategic mission for the coming five years at his first media briefing as premier, Li promised to push forward reform and streamline government functions, reduce red tape and rebalance the relationship between the government and the market.

"The reform is about curbing government power. As a self-imposed revolution, it will require real sacrifices and will be painful," Li told the reporters attending the conference.

Streamlining the administration and the delegation of power were the topics on the table at the executive meeting held the day after the press conference. Those issues continued to dominate a huge number of the executive meetings held during the following 12 months.

In 2013, nine meetings were held to discuss how the government could better allow the market to play a decisive role in the economy, thus freeing up valuable time for the leadership to concentrate on the issues that fall under the government's remit. In the two previous years, there had been just one meeting on that topic.

As a result, by the end of last year, the government had delegated or canceled 334 items that had previously been subject to government approval, such as the registration of new businesses. The figure was around half the number that Li has targeted for reform during the new government's first term.

"The change in the government's role is a breakthrough in China's reform program, and the effects of the delegation of power are becoming apparent," said Xu Yaotong, a professor at the National Academy of Governance.

In 2013, the number of newly registered businesses rose 27 percent, compared with just 1 or 2 percent in previous years.

The effects are also being felt behind the high, red walls of the Zhongnanhai complex. At least 54 subordinate bodies of the State Council, including 20 ministries or equivalent bodies, decided to slash existing "administrative approval items", in other words, red tape. A list of those being maintained was published for the sake of clarity and to facilitate public supervision.

Xu said the delegation of power will dominate reforms this year, too. "Market players are allowed to do anything that is not strictly prohibited by law, but the government can only do the things the law allows," he said.

Cutting red tape

"The ultimate goal of the reduction in red tape is to clearly list the powers available to the government to make it accountable to the public. The success of the reforms will depend largely on how local governments embrace the changes," according to Xu.

"To prevent local governments from playing tricks, such as adding new administrative approval items while removing existing ones, the central government should take effective measures to supervise them and encourage them to adhere to the rules," he said.