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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Chinese Government Cedes More Power, This Time With a Message: Citizens Must Step Up

China's Forbidden City, once the seat of its power. But time brings change, even in China's government. (Pixelflake via Wikimedia Commons)

A recent policy adjustment may become a catalyst for China’s stagnant political reform project. On October 10, the country’s State Council announced its decision about the “sixth wave of removing and modifying items of administrative examination and approval” (关于第六批取消和调整行政审批项目的决定). Stultifying title notwithstanding, the decision touches on important questions about the scope of government power that will continue to see heated debate as China prepares for its leadership transition in November. One hundred seventy-one “approval items,” ranging from the confirmation of qualified radio and television news professionals and the founding of consulting agencies to religious institutes’ employment of foreign experts and foreigners’ entry to natural reservations, will be removed from the ambit of government oversight. In addition, the power to approve an additional 117 items will be devolved from the central government to local governments. The approval of another nine items will be handled by fewer government departments. Seventeen items will be merged into others.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, some netizens cheered at the government’s apparently loosening grasp on power. @老钱的记录 is one of them. “Really great news that we must support! Removal of administrative approval is the only way to tackle our difficulties with getting education, medical care, and everything else. The removal could leave room for free competition and lower prices and leave no room for corruption and rent-seeking! We should support the implementation of the policy as if we are fighting for our own interest! We should demand more removals!”{{1}}[[1]]这是一定要顶的大事!放开行政审批是解决上学难,就医难,各种难的唯一途径。放开才能有竞争,放开才会降价,放开才能让腐败寻租没有机会!我们要跟争取自己的利益一样力顶放开的落实,力顶更多的放开![[1]]

But the decision’s release also revealed the sheer scope of government power. @钱刀拉 said the announcement made him aware just how much had in fact been controlled by government. “Curiously, I looked through the list of items and got surprised. I had never expected that the government had been in control of so many things and to such a large extent. No wonder the government is so gigantic. No wonder the Mainland is a paradise for rent-seeking.”{{2}}[[2]]好奇地看了一下涉及哪些项目,结果大吃一惊,原来过去政府管得那么深那么宽,怪不得政府如此庞大,怪不得大陆是世界最大的寻租地[[2]]

The omnipresence of the government’s power to examine and approve, a legacy from the era of a planned economy, reflects the power structure of China’s “strong state” versus its “weak society.” The convoluted approval system wastes large amounts of administrative resources and taxpayer money, while creating room for rent-seeking—that is, “manipulating the social or political environment” to acquire wealth, rather than engaging in productive activity. As the People’s Daily reports, companies complain that in order to acquire governmental approval, they must first complete a multi-step process involving numerous bribable middlemen. The administrative approval institution thus becomes a disguised channel for fee-charging. It not only impinges on social and market autonomy, but becomes a hotbed for corruption. As @3T白勺s summarizes, “The administrative approval system is everywhere. It serves few functions other than lowering efficiency, creating rent-seeking, and nourishing arrogant officials.”{{3}}[[3]]中国社会现在到处都是特么炒蛋的行政审批,除了严重影响了效率,增加寻租的空间,培养出一帮傲慢的狗脸公仆外,压根没多大意义[[3]]

The central government has been taking action to change these problematic policies. Since 2001, the State Council has launched six waves of removal of approval items. According to the People’s Daily, the first five waves have canceled a total of 2,183 items. After the recent announcement, fewer than two thousands items remain in the province of the central government’s approval.

Yet the recent action has received much more public attention than the previous five, in part because in its announcement, the State Council articulated its determination to weaken public power with unprecedented clarity. The first section of the announcement states: “The government must stop intervening with anything that citizens and [private] organizations can decide for themselves, that the market competition system can effectively adjust, and that guilds and mediators can administrate. Any prior examination and approval must be removed for anything that the government can [instead] supervise afterwards or indirectly.” {{4}}[[4]] 凡公民、法人或者其他组织能够自主决定,市场竞争机制能够有效调节,行业组织或者中介机构能够自律管理的事项,政府都要退出。凡可以采用事后监管和间接管理方式的事项,一律不设前置审批。[[4]] The third section of the announcement further holds that the state should step out of all functions which Chinese society is capable of performing on its own. “The government should outsource logistical work and public service to competent social organizations.” {{5}}[[5]] 把适合事业单位和社会组织承担的事务性工作和管理服务事项,通过委托、招标、合同外包等方式交给事业单位或社会组织承担。[[5]]

Many interpret the statement as evidence of the central government’s willingness to transform its functions and mitigate over-expansion of the public power. @Goo99’s comment is representative. “It’s a transition from a big government to a small one, from a for-profit government to a for-people one.”{{6}}[[6]]这是一个从大政府到小政府的过渡,是从逐利型政府到惠民型政府的转变。[[6]] By giving companies and social organizations more autonomy, the government indirectly encourages the growth of a wholesome market system and a civil society. @麦礼谦V  articulates his hope: “I hope that the signal sent by the central government will get a positive response from local organs. Only when the government adopts a ‘letting go’ ideology can the market function properly and society grow normally. This is the most important consensus achieved during the thirty-four years after ‘reform and opening up’.”{{7}}[[7]]期望中央释放的强烈信号得到地方和部门的正向反馈,切莫陷入权力越减越大的怪圈。唯有政府放手,市场才能归位,社会才能成长。这是三十多年最重要共识.[[7]]

As always, however, the trick is in the implementation. For example, China also has strong written safeguards for free speech in its constitution, but those words are ignored in practice. Netizens thus worry whether this new statement of policy will be implemented as it was apparently intended to be. As @加饭的莱猪 comments, it is unrealistic to expect that an official document alone can make bureaus abandon the powers which have brought them considerable material gain. “The government will not actually loosen its hand if it doesn’t want to. Unless power is checked and balanced and the system of incentives is changed, [the State Council’s] statement is empty and useless. Even if some bureaus give up the power temporarily, the power would eventually come back under a different name.”{{8}}[[8]]想管的行政审批往往都抢着不撒手。没有制约或激励方向的改变,一声“两个凡是”的口号空洞无用,即便有的暂时放下,转身换个名字会再回来[[8]]

Moreover, some claim that even if bureaus precisely follow the instructions given by the State Council, the difference made by the policy may be negligible when compared to other forms of overarching public power. @孙建波博士, one of the questioners, points out that unless reforms in several institutions unfold together, the dream of “small government” will remain just that. “The key issue is that the boundary of public power needs to be strictly defined by the constitution. Administration, legislature, judiciary and the society should perform their jobs independently. No public power should interfere with every sphere. The removal of administrative approval fails to get to the heart of the issue. Less examination and approval cannot prevent the direct intervention of government officials.”{{9}}[[9]]最大的退出应该是:行政权力的边界应有严格的宪法约束。行政、立法、司法和社会标准,应各司其职,不能行政干预无处不在。所谓减少行政审批,乃是隔靴捎痒,减少了审批,却多了“领导意志”的干预。[[9]]

While this latest policy adjustment rightfully excites reform advocates, there is only so much government itself can do. Effective implementation of the policy and realization of the dream of “small government” ultimately depends more on citizens than on government. As rights consciousness becomes increasingly prevalent in Chinese society, more citizens will struggle to protect their rights from abuse by public power. The journey will be long and full of difficulty, but, as media professional Pu Baoyi (@朴抱一) writes, China can eventually get there with citizen perseverance: “Looking through the list of removed items of administrative approval, a saying from Zhu Xueqin [a history professor at Shanghai University] came to mind: ‘Even if we can’t make it to our destination in ten years, we should still keep making progress every day.’ Every removed item reflects a struggle between a free market economy and government control. As we keep making progress step by step, the room for a market economy will be enlarged inch by inch. Democracy and freedom is concrete and achievable. ”{{10}}[[10]]我逐条看完取消的行政审批项目,想起了朱学勤那句“纵使十年不将军,却无一日不拱卒”。每一项的进退之间,就是经济自由与经济管制的博弈,日拱一卒,则市场经济的空间就会大一寸。民主和自由是具体而现实的.[[10]]

Cover image by Peng Yanan via Wikimedia Commons.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.