In the annals of Chinese bureaucratic power, the Ministry of Railways stood apart. Running everything from one of the world’s busiest rail systems to a special police force, the ministry that Chinese called “Boss Railway” was so pervasive and powerful it resisted government reform efforts for years.
On Sunday, Beijing gave notice that it was firing the boss. Under a plan presented to the National People’s Congress — China’s largely rubber-stamp legislature — to restructure Cabinet departments, the government said it would dismantle the ministry, moving its railways operations to a newly created company and placing its regulatory offices in the Chinese Ministry of Transport.
The railway ministry is not the only target of reform: Under the restructuring plan, two agencies that censor broadcasters and print media will be combined into a super media regulator; the commission that enforces the much disliked rules that limit many to only having one child will be merged with the Chinese Ministry of Health; and five agencies that police fisheries and other maritime resources are being united to better assert China’s control over disputed waters, potentially sharpening conflicts with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Certain to be passed by the legislature this week, the plan reflects the priorities of the newly installed Chinese Communist Party leadership as it seeks to reduce waste, boost efficiency and address quality-of-life issues for a more prosperous, demanding society. The scope and power of the railways ministry made it a natural place for the leadership to stamp its determination. As it expanded the railway system and built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the ministry ran up hundreds of billions of US dollars in debt and sank into corruption, giving critics an opportunity to pounce.
Reformers crowed at the ministry’s abolition, saying it would further reforms.
“It means the country has removed the last ‘stronghold’ in the way of reforming the industry from a planned economy to market economy,” the Xinhua news agency quoted Wang Yiming (王一鳴), deputy head of the Academy of Macroeconomic Research under the National Development and Reform Commission, as saying.
Even the current — and seemingly last — railways minister had to bow to the inevitable.
“I’ve no regrets. Whether I’m minister of railways or not is no matter,” Sheng Guangzu (盛光祖) said on China National Radio. “The key is to develop China’s railways. I’m subordinate to the needs of the national cause.”
Reform-minded Chinese leaders and officials had been trying to bring the railways to heel for 15 years when the government first started separating state companies from regulatory bodies. At each turn, the ministry resisted, using long-standing ties to the military and building a record for performance. Over the past decade, it created the showcase high-speed rail system touted by the leadership as a symbol for Chinese technological power on par with the space program.
In announcing the restructuring, a senior Chinese official praised the progress, but explained why the ministry had to be abolished.
“In recent years, the railways have developed in leaps and bounds, and safeguarded the smooth running of the economy and the needs of people’s lives and production. However, its government and enterprises are not separated. It doesn’t link smoothly with other modes of transport and there are other problems,” Chinese State Council Secretary-General Ma Kai (馬凱) told legislators.