End of the Line for China’s Sprawling, Corruption-Plagued Railway Ministry

China has announced plans to reduce its bureaucracy by cutting two of its 27 Cabinet-level ministries, including the scandal-plagued Ministry of Railways, a massive body with more than 2 million staffers

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The sun sets behind a train passing over a bridge in Xingtai, southern Hebei province, south of Beijing, March 10, 2013.

China has announced plans to reduce its bureaucracy by cutting two of its 27 Cabinet-level ministries, including the Ministry of Railways, a massive body with more than 2 million staff and its own police and court system. The Railway Ministry’s dual roles of both regulating train travel and promoting the rapid expansion of the country’s high-speed network was seen as a contributing factor to safety flaws that led to a deadly 2011 crash and a corruption scandal that toppled its former boss, Liu Zhijun.

In addition to downsizing the Railway Ministry, the government will merge the National Population and Family Planning Commission (the body that overseas the one-child policy) with the Ministry of Health, increase the status of the State Food and Drug Administration and combine the two chief censorship bodies, the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, Xinhua reported, citing State Council Secretary General Ma Kai’s address Sunday to the National People’s Congress.

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The changes to the Railway Ministry are likely to gain the most attention because of its recent scandals and the widespread reliance on train travel in China, particularly during the Chinese New Year holiday, when more than 200 million people use the country’s extensive rail network. The government’s plans call for splitting the ministry into a commercial China Railway Corporation to operate the rail system and merging the administrative functions with the Ministry of Transport. “The integration of government administration with business enterprise has caused many problems, such as low-efficiency and corruption,” says Zhao Jian, a railway expert and professor at Beijing Transportation University. “As a monopoly, the railway department lacks economic efficiency. These reforms will make it possible to break up the monopoly, introduce competition and enhance the efficiency of the whole railway industry.” Dissolving the Railway Ministry itself is but a first step, says Zhao, otherwise the country will be left with a single, massive corporate entity operating the system. “Next we should break up the monopoly and introduce competition into this industry,” he says.

Indeed, many of the changes announced on Sunday may have more symbolic than practical significance. They will nonetheless likely be welcomed by a population tired of corruption and excessive bureaucracy. “The majority of people in China really just want better governance, less abuse, less corruption or at least less ostentatious displays of ill-gotten wealth and some indication that the party is taking things seriously and addressing their main concerns,” says Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham. Since taking over the role of Communist Party chief in November, Xi Jinping has made a priority of reining in the official perquisites most aggravating to the Chinese public, such as lavish meals and traffic-snarling motorcades.

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The reduction in the total number of ministries is part of that effort, says Tsang, because it addresses public concerns about the ruling party enabling a vast class of unaccountable elites, even if it doesn’t manage to reduce the overall size of the bureaucracy. “In reality, it doesn’t matter much if you merge ministries or not,” he says. “But in present terms, it’s quite useful for projecting the image of the party taking on concerns about too many senior officials, too many people with privileges. By reducing the ministries, it appears there are fewer people with privilege. It’s a clever play on this kind of public-image concern, even if it is not matched by reality.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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