Month after month, Xi Jinping’s reform plan for China unveils its solid grounds. The recent move for unlimited presidential terms caused quite a stir, but the National People’s Congress has surprised analysts for the party’s cohesion around Xi’s leadership. Premier Li Keqiang reported on government activities and stressed China’s achievements in economic innovation, infrastructures, and responses to national and international challenges, such as last year’s flooding in the Yangtze area or the G20 Hangzhou Summit. Yet Li’s commitments for the next five years anticipate something further: a working framework for “new era” socialism, enacted through reform of the People’s Republic’s governing body.
The State Council is indeed the top-level institution in China. Chiefly, its reshuffle has been a common practice for Chinese politicians, adjusting organization charts to new strategic goals. For example, the importance of space technology was marked in 1982 by the transformation of an unspecified seventh department into the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. Six years later, it was merged with the aviation bureau, thus giving a perspective more centered on technological development for civil use.
Today, the focus is on streamlining the machine. Central approvals for administration regulations were reduced by a third in 2017. The management of many services and organizations needing government supervision was standardized. Shortly before the opening of the People’s Congress, the reform of the council was announced and has been recently approved. Overall, it shall remove eight ministerial figures and seven deputy figures. Competences are being reassigned among institutions and a longer list of ministries is going to handle previously dispersed duties.
If combined with Xi Jinping’s efforts to fight corruption, the State Council reform indicates a renewed stress put on political education and training, especially regarding local cadres. On the one hand, cutting expenses and lowering the central monitoring level should admittedly require decentralization to local authorities. On the other, the move to prevent misuses of public funds and graft should give the state stability by fostering an “optimal” administrative mechanism.
The problem of party discipline and internal dissent is consequently becoming central. In this regard, one major change concerns anticorruption policies. The Ministry of Supervision and the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention have been merged into the newly created National Supervision Commission. This “anticorruption organization with Chinese characteristics” was said to take efforts to a whole new level. It will be under the direct orders of the State Council and will work in conjunction with its counterpart inside the party. At local levels, the commissions will become state structures, being accountable only to the highest authorities. Clearly, the Commission may represent a new frontier for the promotion of political rectitude, and might be a powerful tool to get rid of internal disagreement. However, party dissent might still be provoked by Xi’s prospective third mandate, since it will likely overshadow the next generation of party leaders and block institutional turnover.
Xi and his entourage really seem to envisage a “new era”. “Deepening the reform of the party and state institutions is an inevitable requirement for strengthening long-term governance”, declared Liu He, Xi’s Harvard-educated and prominent economic advisor since 2012, who is now promoting government restructuring. In a commentary in the People’s Daily, he criticized the overlapping of government ministries, leading to unsatisfactory results and inefficiencies. As the removal of the two-term limit leaves little doubt about Xi’s intentions, then the reforms might be meant to rely on the idea of a strong presidency.
Historically, China can be seen as floating between collegial and presidential forms of government, at least since the times of the First United Front. While opposing the cabinet-based government of Wang Jingwei in 1927-1928, Chiang Kai-Shek pushed for new organic laws and more agile rule by the leader. Nonetheless, he ultimately failed to solve the internal problems of the Nationalist Party, raising internal opposition for almost a decade. As for the present, China might be undergoing a real transformation in coming years, and this would not be unusual for the CPC. The growth of Xi’s power is indeed remarkable and it might serve the purpose of reforming the country, but he will have to consider, however, the many counterweights that have balanced party-country relations so far.