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The standing committee of China's National People's Congress is discussing a draft law on administrative licenses, which if enacted would be one of a series of new regulations designed to trim the Chinese bureaucracy and centralize power in the NPC, State Council and the provincial legislatures, reports Stratfor, the global intelligence company.
The new regulations limit the power and influence of China's vast army of government bureaucrats in an attempt to stem corruption in the party ranks. But as Beijing tackles the monumental task of bureaucratic reform, the increased power of the national congresses may present a new series of challenges for the central government.
A new draft law on Chinese administrative licenses, under review by the NPC is one of a series of measures designed to streamline the Chinese bureaucracy, increase transparency and stem official corruption. The state-run People's Daily Aug. 29 – under the headline "Lawmakers Call for Sharp Reduction of Gov't Power" – cited a member of the NPC standing committee as saying, "Government isn't and shouldn't be regarded as omnipotent."
The regulation under consideration would limit the right of lower-level bureaucracies to determine if government permission is needed for public activities ranging from starting a business to driving a car. The draft is part of a series of regulations implemented over the past year that are designed to cut through bureaucratic red tape, weed out corruption and consolidate power in the central and provincial legislatures and governments. However, reforming China's civil service sector will be difficult for Beijing, and reducing administrative powers may be counterproductive.
What may prove even more significant in the long term is the steady increase in power of the NPC. Under its chairman Li Peng, the NPC has moved beyond being a "rubberstamp parliament" to take on more responsibilities and allow more freedoms for internal dialogue among representatives amid the widespread social and economic changes of China's reform and opening process.
The overt focus of the proposed regulation on administrative licenses is to lessen government interference in the lives of Chinese and to curtail the misuse of power by government bodies, according to a series of articles in state-run media. The regulation will reduce the number of activities that require official licenses and shrink the number of licenses needed for certain activities, like starting new businesses. More directly, it will make it the exclusive right of the NPC, the State Council and provincial parliaments and governments to determine what activities will require licenses. Ministries and commissions under the State Council, for example, will no longer be allowed to determine licensing requirements.
This is in part an attempt to restructure the civil service sector, making it both more trustworthy in the eyes of the average Chinese citizen and more dependent upon central authority. Mid- and low-level bureaucrats often have used the requirement of licenses to extend their power and expand their wealth. This sort of corruption has undermined the image and authority of the Communist Party, stirred anti-government resentment and interfered with China's moves toward a socialist market economy.
In trying to remove the incentives for corruption, Beijing has offered repeated wage raises for civil servants in recent years. The government is also trying to recruit better-qualified and more professional bureaucrats. But the government must compete with domestic and foreign businesses for the best and brightest, and taking away another perk of the job – the ability to gain respect and influence through wielding an official government stamp – may backfire, attracting only mediocre applicants who cannot compete in the tighter Chinese labor market.
But beyond the reformation of the bureaucracy, there is another process under way that this latest draft regulation highlights: the rising power of the NPC. In Western media, the boilerplate descriptor for the NPC has long been "China's rubberstamp parliament." Although this may well have been accurate, it is growing less so as NPC chairman Li Peng has strengthened the body in order to increase his own influence. While the NPC chairmanship has not reached the stature of prime minister or president, it has become much more important under Li.
Li has allowed, and even encouraged, new levels of debate inside the NPC, and the body is not so quick to approve recommendations from the State Council as it once was. It is also emerging as a more important source of legislation and guidance. In the draft law on administrative licenses, the NPC is set as an equal to the State Council.
The irony if this trend continues, however, is that although Li was trying to solidify and centralize his own power, his remodeling of the NPC may lay the groundwork for greater tension between the central government and the regions. As the NPC grows more powerful, so do the regional representatives to the NPC, particularly those from economically or militarily important provinces. In the heavily factionalized NPC, these more influential representatives will be able to dominate the agenda and in turn have more say in national policy – possibly even the ability to counter central government plans.
Although it is entirely possible that Li's upcoming retirement will relegate the NPC once again to being an extension of the State Council, shifts inside the Communist Party and government ranks suggest the evolution of the NPC will continue past next spring. As China moves away from operating under the influence of a single, supreme leader, like Mao Zedong, factional interests and debates will come more and more to shape Chinese policies, and the NPC is the place for such discussions. If the NPC continues on its current path, the party and central government core will find themselves more and more needing to address the issues of the provincial leaders.