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State Council sessions provide key clues to future

ZHAO YINAN Updated: Aug 7,2015 7:18 AM     China Daily

The black sedan taking Chen Zhenggao to a high-level meeting stopped at the red gate of a sprawling complex west of the Forbidden City on July 28.

The steel security barrier, with its black-and-yellow stripes, was lowered as the car approached. With a crisp salute from armed police soldiers, the car took Chen into Zhongnanhai, the center of political power in China.

Chen, the minister of housing and urban-rural development, was heading to the weekly State Council executive meeting.

That meeting marked the 100th presided over by Premier Li Keqiang at the former royal retreat, and also signaled the start of the second half of Premier Li’s five-year term.

A close study of these meetings, at which members of the central government debate and formulate policy and decide on affairs of State, provides a clue to the government work priorities and policy orientations.

Reducing bureaucracy for businesses-a top issue on the government’s agenda-was also the most frequently debated topic at the meetings. It was discussed at 45 of them-nearly half the total.

More than 800 issues concerning business operations that previously required government approval were scrapped or delegated to a lower level of government.

Tax reduction, which can directly reduce the burden on businesses, came in next. A quarter of the meetings were devoted to this topic, and tax cuts of about 67 billion yuan ($10.8 billion) were approved.

Decisions taken at the meetings directly affect the future and prosperity of one-fifth of humanity and, with China’s increasing interconnectivity, have an immense impact on global affairs, especially trade.

Debate encouraged

The meeting Chen was heading to approved a major infrastructure plan to upgrade pipelines and underground facilities in urban areas.

Experts said this will generate at least 400 billion yuan in investment, including social funds, which act as a key spur to economic growth.

There is expected to be a big market for the expertise of foreign companies in urban planning. The underground infrastructure work will be one of the world’s biggest construction projects in terms of investment-even larger than that for the Three Gorges Dam.

An official who once attended the meetings, and asked not to be named, said not all the participants attend an entire meeting, to make the process more efficient.

“If multiple issues are discussed, people will leave after the part of the discussion they are concerned about, and have expertise in, has finished. This encourages full debate from specialists in their field,” he said.

The meetings are held under strict confidentiality, with no photographs or video footage depicting the meeting room available to the public.

Bo Guili, a professor at the National Academy of Governance, said the routine for holding a weekly work conference was established only recently.

He said executive meetings used to be held about once a month, before being increased to three meetings a week in 2003, and finally becoming a weekly practice in 2008.

The schedule is followed strictly, with occasional exceptions when the premier is traveling. Ministers who are unable to attend must report to the premier in advance.

Bo said the government would meet more frequently if a particular issue needed to be discussed immediately.

Such a case arose in 2008. The government held two meetings in one day when it announced a 4 trillion yuan economic stimulus to combat the global financial crisis, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Niu Li, director of the Economic Forecasting Department at the State Information Center, said that as the government strives to find new economic engines, more pro-growth policies are in the pipeline to encourage infrastructure construction and consumption.

Improved efficiency

One major task for Li’s Cabinet over the next 30 months is to cultivate new growth engines and tackle industries that cause heavy pollution and are burdened by overcapacity, Niu said.

“As some sectors gradually die out, the government needs to ensure adequate jobs and public well-being,” he said, adding that economic growth of about 7 percent is a precondition to allow reform initiatives to be implemented.

“Policies to increase consumption, investment and exports of Chinese equipment will be the three major issues to be discussed frequently at the weekly work conferences in the years to come,” he said.

Gao Xiaoping, vice-president of the China Public Administration Society, said the meetings provide a democratic decision-making platform and improve government efficiency.

He said the weekly gatherings are sometimes used to promote consensus on a controversial issue when public opinion is divided.

Li Xiaopeng, the governor of Shanxi province, once said he used to watch the prime time news every Wednesday evening in the first half of 2013, when the economy was under pressure and speculation was rife that a stimulus package would be announced.

“I read between the lines of the media releases and wanted to get a feel of the latest central government policy changes,” he said.

Chen Mengwei contributed to this story.