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China issues plan to streamline government

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LOUISE WATT | March 9, 2013 11:59 PM EST | AP

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BEIJING — China announced plans Sunday to streamline government ministries, doing away with the powerful Railways Ministry and creating a super-agency to regulate the media and realigning other bureaucracies in a bid to boost efficiency.

The plan introduced to the rubber-stamp national legislature is being pushed by the newly installed Communist Party leadership and reflects its priorities to reduce waste and address quality of life issues for a more prosperous, demanding society.

Among the changes, the corruption-plagued Railways Ministry will be split, its regulatory responsibilities going to the Transport Ministry and its operations to a commercial entity. The food and drug agency will see a boost in authority to try to end the safety scandals that have been a source of public anger, and two censorship arms, one for broadcasters and one for print media, will be merged.

The restructuring, the seventh since China began market reforms 30 years ago, marks the latest periodic attempt to reduce government meddling in the economy and society. Despite the effort, the government's role in the economy and the power of state companies have grown over the past decade, often to the detriment of private and foreign companies, which face a welter of industrial and other policies that have raised barriers to success.

This time, the streamlining plan includes guidelines to restrict and better define the central government's responsibilities, limiting its issuing of permits for projects, the setting of standards and other policies that have slowed decision-making.

"Departments of the State Council are now focusing too much on micro issues. We should attend to our duties and must not meddle in what is not in our business," Ma Kai, secretary-general of the State Council, or Cabinet, told the legislators. He said that overlapping government functions has often led to buck-passing.

Overall the realignment would do away with four agencies and reduce the number of ministry-level bodies by two to 25.

The public has been complaining about government inefficiency and for that reason "we should dare to push ahead with cracking the tough nut of structural reform," the state-run Jinghua Daily quoted Wang Feng, an official in the Communist Party office involved in drafting the reform program.

Underscoring the government's determination is the abolishing of the Railways Ministry. With deep ties to the military, the ministry has resisted previous rounds of reform and has continued to serve as both regulator and operator. Under the new plan, operations will be spun off into a newly created China Railway Corp., responsible for building railways and managing freight and passenger services. Safety, quality and other regulatory standards will be the purview of a state railway administration under the Ministry of Transport.

Another influential bureaucracy, the family planning commission, which oversees enforcement of the much disliked policies that limit most families to one child, will be merged with the Health Ministry in a sign the government may be rethinking its approach to family planning. The proposal called for "maintaining and perfecting family planning policies" and said the party would continue to set policy. Meanwhile, population research is being transferred to the economic planning agency, highlighting government concern about the effect an aging population and shrinking labor force may have on the economy.

In another bureaucratic boost, the government will pull together separate agencies involved in fisheries and other maritime law enforcement into one administration. The move appears aimed at better asserting China's claims in disputed stretches of the East and South China seas and, if energetically pressed, could aggravate already high tensions with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The National Energy Administration, created five years ago to help oversee a pressing need for the fast-growing but resource-strapped economy, would be expanded to absorb a regulatory body that sets electric rates.

The food and drug administration is being elevated in status to ministry level to give it added powers in hopes of improving enforcement and ending the lax enforcement that has led to repeated scandals over toxic medicines and tainted foods from milk to meat.

In a separate report to the legislature, the head of the supreme court, Wang Shengjun, said Chinese courts had sentenced more than 20,000 people for making and selling adulterated milk powder, recycled cooking oil known as "gutter oil" and the steroid clenbuterol, which makes pigs produce leaner meat.