More Than ‘Downsizing’
On March 23, the first emissions permit from China's new Ministry of Ecological Environment (MEE) was issued by the local environmental protection bureau of Baoding in Hebei Province. As shown on the new permit, the Ministry's logo had changed from ZHB ( Zhongguo huanbao, literally, Chinese environmental protection) to MEE, indicating that the reformed ministry was officially in operation.
The MEE was just one of the ministries on the long list of government departments to be restructured under new reforms. After axing 15 government departments and revamping the others, China's State Council now consists of 26 ministries and commissions aside from the General Office of the State Council. The reform has spread to the Party's organs, the NPC (China's highest legislative organ), the CPPCC (China's highest political consulting organ), and the departments under them.
Although some of the implementation plans have not yet been detailed or made public, analysts believe that based on what has already taken place, the latest institutional restructuring is the deepest and the most far-sighted of the past decades, covering nearly every government and Party department and focusing on streamlining and integrating government functions, rather than purely downsizing them as previous reforms had done.
The MEE, for example, is empowered to take on a new function: ecological protection, which has long been due for a merger with the environmental protection agency. An apparently high-level government official wrote under the pseudonym “Xuanyan” (literally “manifesto”) in Party paper the People’s Daily that “current reform focuses on the following three years and looks farther to the next three decades.”
The way MEE vice-minister Huang Runqiu sees it, “MEE” is a better name than the previous Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) because it makes clear that “controlling pollution will protect the ecology.”
“Although ecology and the environment are two different concepts, they compliment and influence each other, and it is [more] logical one single ministry does the work of both,” Huang said at a group discussion during the two sessions, China's top legislative meetings that were held in March.
In addition to its old functions, the MEE will take on around 10 more responsibilities, including responding to climate change, emissions reduction, groundwater pollution controls and zoning for water use. These were once scattered between other ministries.
“It is an upgraded version of the ministry,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a non-profit environmental research organization. “It is of great significance that the MEE has broken through previous obstructions from other departments whose responsibilities somewhat overlapped with the former MEP,” he told Newschina.
The MEE is not the only ministry with substantially expanded functions. The new Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) replaces the former Ministry of Land and Resources, State Oceanic Administration, and National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation, as well as integrating some functions of five other ministries. The MNR will manage all of China's natural resources, including water, grasslands, forestry, wetlands, oceans and more. Crucially, it will also take over responsibility for zoning and urban and rural construction planning. These duties were previously performed by the National Development and the Reform Commission and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development.
“It [the MNR] will be a powerful department that helps clarify the users of types of natural resources, removes planning overlaps and gives integral protection to natural resources,” Niu Xiong, a deputy researcher of natural resources and the environment at the Develop-