It has been a busy few days for employees of China’s ministry of railways. One of the largest movements of people by train in the history of the world has been achieved, so far, without a major hitch.
Any kudos for its management of the lunar-new-year rush, however, will not spare the ministry from its widely expected fate: a merger with the ministry of transport. The government believes that fewer, bigger ministries will boost bureaucratic efficiency. It could also, officials say, help the country change in more fundamental ways.
The numbers handled by China’s state-owned rail service during the new-year holiday, this year running from Feb. 9 to Feb. 15, are staggering — a byproduct of a huge recent migration into urban areas of rural residents, most of whom have left behind relatives whom they rejoin in the countryside for the festivities. On Feb. 6 there were more than 6.3 million trips taken by rail around the country. Chinese media predict that travelers will make a total of some 220 million train journeys during the 40 days around the new-year holiday period.
Even so, though, few will miss the ministry of railways. Among advocates of super-sized ministries, the railway bureaucracy, with its lingering Maoist attitudes toward service and its notorious corruption, is held up as a prime example of a structure that needs stripping of its stubborn independence.
Recent weeks have brought growing speculation that a new round of ministry mergers soon will unfold. The 370-odd members of the Communist Party’s central committee are expected to meet later this month to finalize arrangements for the annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, which begins on March 5. Further steps to create what officials call a "big-ministry system" are likely to be discussed.
The last push to achieve this was in 2008, when six central-government agencies were abolished and five super-ministries created. Of the 27 ministries left after this restructuring, officials suggest that several more are likely to be merged. China’s aim is to rid itself of a Soviet-style bureaucracy with a tendency to micromanage and an extensive overlap of interests among central departments. Bigger ministries, it is argued, should mean smaller government.
It is far from clear how rapidly these reforms will happen. For much of the 1980s and 1990s. there were more than 40 ministries and commissions. In 1998 the number was cut to 29. Progress since then has been slow.
The restructuring five years ago created a new transport super-ministry with the Civil Aviation Administration of China and the State Post Bureau folded into it. The ministry of railways was left out, however: With its own courts and police, it continued to operate as a hugely powerful fief. Its swagger has grown even greater in the past few years with the rapid building of a high-speed rail network costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
The ministry’s star now may be waning. The July 2011 collision of two high-speed trains that killed at least 40 people near the eastern city of Wenzhou prompted widespread accusations that railway bureaucrats had been paying too little heed to safety in their building spree. Earlier that year Liu Zhijun, then the railway minister, was detained on suspicion of corruption. He probably will be tried in the next few months.
In January some Chinese media published sketchy reports that plans for a merger with the transport ministry were beginning to take shape, although some said that these were likely to be complicated by the ministry’s huge debts and its vast business interests.
Another leading candidate for super-sizing is the ministry of culture. This deeply conservative bureaucracy could take over the general administration of press and publication as well as the state administration of radio, film and television. Many lower-level administrations around the country already have begun to take such steps. Hainan, an island off the southern coast, has merged not only culture, publications and broadcasting but also sports into a super-department at the provincial level.
A similar move in the central government could help avoid the kind of open bickering between the G.A.P.P. and the ministry of culture that erupted in 2009 over which was responsible for supervision of online games.
Some worry, however, that creating bigger ministries with more responsibilities could backfire. Instead of making government more efficient, it could create even more powerful bureaucratic interest groups that could thwart efforts to make government nimbler and more responsive to public needs.
In recent months China has seen a burgeoning online discussion about the possibility of creating a new commission to oversee economic and political reforms and ensure that ministries cooperate in carrying them out. The lack of cooperation has been evident recently in behind-the-scenes feuding over a blueprint for reducing the wealth gap. It was eventually published on Feb. 5, with a telling lack of detail.
Officials say that the "big-ministry system" is not only about redefining bureaucratic boundaries, but also is an important part of more thoroughgoing political reform. Alongside small government, they sometimes stress a need for "big society," with much greater nongovernmental involvement in the provision of basic services. Guangdong province, next to Hainan, has been a leader in both efforts.
Skeptics abound, however. Although registering as an NGO is somewhat easier in Guangdong than in many other parts of the country, NGO workers still are routinely harassed. One district of the province, Shunde, has won much acclaim for cutting its departments from 41 to 16, but trimming officials has proven more difficult: In a nearby district one super-sized department ended up with 19 deputy heads.
Many Chinese Internet users are accusing the government of fake reform.