Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Of Dreams and Renaissance: China’s New Government

James Chen


March 29, 2013

By James Chen

“We cannot hold the slightest complacency, there can be no slacking-off, [we] must redouble our efforts and, [with] our indomitable will, continue to push forward the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”

With these words, Xi Jinping, who had assumed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last November, proclaimed his vision for the nation as he assumed the presidency of the People’s Republic of China. This inauguration was the culmination of the March meeting of China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC). Although the president is officially the head of state, the position is in practice a figurehead because the state apparatus is subservient to the party. For this reason, the NPC is largely regarded as a rubber stamp whose primary role is to enact decisions made by the party.

Nevertheless, the NPC meetings are still important because they provide clues to the thinking of China’s new leaders. A major government restructuring plan was announced which merged certain agencies and dissolved others. The winners and losers from this restructuring reveal the leadership’s policy priorities as well as the results of behind-the-scenes factional horse trading. For example, a new “State Food and Drug Supervision Administration” was created by merging two agencies and taking over responsibilities from two others. The creation of this new super-agency attempts to address widespread public anger over food safety scandals that resulted in several sicknesses and deaths and continue to recur on a disturbingly regular basis.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission, the agency in charge of developing and implementing China’s one-child policy, saw its influence significantly curtailed. The commission and the Health Ministry have been merged to create a new “National Health and Family Planning Commission.” More notably, the commission’s policy research and formulation responsibilities have been transferred to the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic policymaking body. With an enormous staff of over 500,000, it was in the family planning commission’s bureaucratic self-interest to maintain the one-child policy, and it possessed the power to do so. That power is now in the hands of economists, many of whom view China’s demographic imbalance as a threat to sustained economic growth. This restructuring creates a path within China’s bureaucratic political system for potential changes to be made to the one-child policy.

Another major casualty of the restructuring is the Railways Ministry. This agency was in charge of both regulating and operating China’s massive rail networks. As a result, it amassed an enormous amount of power over time, even possessing its own courts and police forces, and had become a virtual fiefdom within the Chinese bureaucracy. Eventually, the ministry had grown in the public mind to become associated with corruption, waste and negligence, especially after a deadly collision of high-speed trains in July 2011. If any Chinese leader was serious about reforming the bureaucracy and sending a signal of his reformist intentions, taking on the Railways Ministry would be a logical place to start. In this case, the ministry was outright abolished, its regulatory responsibilities were transferred to the Transport Ministry, and its railway operations will be taken over by a private company.

The government also declared that the state should “retreat from micro-level intervention,” reminiscent of earlier reform goals of “small government, big society.” In line with this, the Civil Affairs Ministry announced that certain nonprofit organizations including charities would now be able to more easily register for legal status. In the past, nonprofits needed a government sponsor in order to register. Now that requirement is lifted, enabling nonprofits to raise funds domestically and offer tax breaks to donors. While this would not cover groups involved in sensitive work such as legal advocacy, it nevertheless represents a significant shift in government perceptions of nonprofit organizations from suspicion to tentative recognition of their social benefits.

Issues related to religion have not been addressed in public by China’s new government. However, the changes announced during this latest NPC meeting indicate that further changes may be afoot to reduce the role of the state in controlling aspects of people’s lives including religious practice. Indeed, with now over 600 million believers of various religions, a special opportunity exists for the government to clear away administrative roadblocks and enable China’s religious communities to apply their natural enthusiasm and strengths towards serving the needy and underprivileged. For many Chinese people of faith, what matters may not necessarily be the “Chinese dream,” but rather helping their fellow citizens transform their dreams into reality.

--James Chen is a Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Global Engagement.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”