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China Axes Railway, Health Ministry in Overhaul

China is pressing forward with a government overhaul plan that seeks to streamline several government agencies in a bid to make them more effective. The plan also calls for axing the country’s Health Ministry and its corruption-plagued, debt-laden Railways Ministry.

In the past three decades, China has overhauled its government seven times. In this latest round, the number of ministries in China’s cabinet or State Council will shrink from 27 to 25.

The Railways Ministry has long been a target of public criticism. More than a dozen of its officials, including one railways minister, have been removed from their posts in the past two years because of corruption scandals.

Hu Xingdou, an economy professor at the Beijing Institute for Technology says the move will help fight corruption because its broader aim is to break the monopoly the ministry has long enjoyed.

Hu says China has entered a critical stage where deep reform is needed and the dismantling of the ministry really means that China is implementing market economy reform. He says the move shows that the government wants to break the monopoly and encourage competition with the private sector.

The overhaul plan calls for splitting the Railways Ministry in two, with its administrative powers coming under the Ministry of Transport. A company will be established to run China’s commercial railway operations.

The move has triggered an outpouring of responses online. Some people even went to the Railway Ministry in Beijing to take pictures outside its offices and then posted them online on China’s Twitter-like microblog service Weibo.

Many lamented that the ministry’s dissolution would mean the price of train tickets would go up. It remains unclear how the move will affect the Railways Ministry’s debt.

Wang Feng, an official with the State Commission Office for Public Sector Reform spoke with reporters on Monday at a news conference to explain the changes.

Wang says that problem of the ministry’s debt will be handled after the company is established to manage its commercial operations. He says once that is taken care of, the answer will become clear.

In addition to the Railways Ministry, the Health Ministry will be merged with China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, the body that oversees China’s one-child policy.

However, government officials were quick to dispel any speculation that the move meant China was changing its one-child policy.

Wang Feng says that, given China’s limited resources, the policy would not only continue, but tighten.

Wang says the government can only strengthen its policy of birth control. He says that, once the changes are carried out, the central government will also seek more engagement from local governments.

In addition to the dissolution of the two ministries, the reorganization also calls for the raising of the status of the state Food and Drug Administration.

Food and drug safety is a major concern in China and persistent source of discontent and worry among the public. Government officials say, last year alone, 465 officials were implicated on suspicion of food safety violations.