China's 'Revolutionary' Restructuring Gives More Power to Ruling Party

Several ministries and government regulators will merge, forming super-ministries and commissions led by high-ranking allies of President Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 5, 2018.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is set to restructure its entire administrative machinery to give it more direct control over the country's finances and government actions.

The "revolutionary" restructuring will merge several ministries, including financial services regulators overseeing the country's heavyweight banking and insurance sectors, media reports indicated.

A national markets supervisory body will take over the portfolio of government agencies dealing with pricing, commerce and industry, quality control, quarantine, and food and drug safety.

The ministry of land and resources, the state oceanic agency, and the national surveying and mapping bureau will be merged into a new ministry of natural resources.

And a new ecology and environment agency will take over from the environment protection ministry, taking over responsibility for climate change and water pollution from other departments.

China has also set up a new immigration agency under its police ministry for the first time, to manage the growing number of foreign residents, while the tourism and cultural portfolios will come together under a single ministry.

And a ministry of veterans' affairs will manage former members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), many of whom have staged mass protests over unpaid benefits and economic hardship in Beijing in recent years.

Centralizing power

The moves represent further centralization of power in China, and come after the country's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), waved through constitutional changes that pave the way for indefinite rule by President Xi Jinping.

Reforms led by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s aimed to move away from centralized party control in all areas following the political turmoil and violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and to entrust the more technical areas of government to a specialized and highly educated civil service.

But Xi has pledged to "strengthen party leadership in all areas of work," and had already begun cutting across traditional lines of ministerial power by heading a series of special commissions and task forces in recent years.

A journalist surnamed Song in the southern province of Guangdong said the restructuring will make little difference to ordinary Chinese, however.

"This restructuring of government departments is on a massive scale, and the aim seems to be to demolish the temples and reinvent the Buddha," Song said, using a traditional metaphor for total regime change.

"There are many mansions within this new temple, and huge political will behind it," he said. "But from the point of view of ordinary people like you and me, it's still the same thing."

Overlaps, turf wars

An independent journalist who gave only his surname Pan told RFA that the move is the biggest restructuring of Chinese government since Deng launched economic reforms more than three decades ago, and seems in part designed to avoid overlaps and turf wars in the machinery of government.

"Take the new inspection and supervisory commission [to fight corruption in party ranks]," Pan said. "Before, we had the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the ministry of supervision, and their remits overlapped."

"What it boils down to is that all power is now in the hands of the party," he said. "Because the head of the new commission will definitely be a member of the Politburo standing committee, as well as the party secretary for the CCDI."

Last October, PLA veterans said they were skeptical of Xi's promises to protect their rights with a new agency, and were waiting to see if it will act as their protector or as just another persecutor.

PLA veterans have been identified by the leadership as one of the most politically sensitive groups in China.

In October 2016, thousands of demobilized PLA personnel converged on Beijing from across China, staging a vocal protest outside the headquarters of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC), which Xi chairs.

Singing "In Unity is Our Strength" and other Chinese military choruses, the veterans, some of whom had fought in in the Korean war (1950-1953), wore their old uniforms and stood peacefully, calling for pensions, health care, and other demobilization benefits they said were promised but not delivered.

Stability maintenance

Any bid to organize has since triggered nationwide security alerts via the "stability maintenance" system, which targets peaceful protesters, petitioners, and critics of the government.

A PLA veteran surnamed Yu said they are still waiting for a resolution to their grievances, many of them struggling to subsist in great hardship with no access to medical care in old age.

"There were agencies in charge of veterans before this agency was set up, so I am guessing that it won't be much different," Yu said. "I am not very hopeful, because this requires a fundamental change of the entire system. It makes no difference what the government says."

"Don't imagine that this is anything new," he said.

The veterans are calling on the authorities to abide by promises made to them before they signed up to fight in China's short border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Clause 3 of the Military Pensions Priority Regulations requires governments to ensure that the standard of living and social situation of demobilized PLA soldiers doesn't fall below the national average.

Other veterans are citing official document No. 75 issued by China's cabinet, the State Council, in 1978 promising to find jobs for demobilized military personnel, as they were promised when they enlisted.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.