SHANGHAI, CHINA—China today unveiled a sweeping revamp of its bureaucracy that is expected to reap benefits for public health, the environment, and combatting climate change—while raising questions about the management of basic research.
The draft plan, which is expected to be adopted in the next few days by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, would resolve one long-standing conflict of interest that has undermined efforts to discourage smoking. Tobacco control has long been under the purview of the industry ministry, which also manages China’s hugely profitable tobacco monopoly. As part of the overhaul, the health ministry would assume responsibility for cutting smoking. “It’s potentially a real breakthrough moment,” says Angela Pratt, a World Health Organization official in Manila who previously headed the organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative in China. Putting the health ministry in charge “removes one block to progress” toward achieving taxation and smoking restriction policies that were strangled by the tobacco industry, she says.
China would also take a fresh approach to environmental issues. The plan would create a Ministry of Ecological Environment: a “positive development” that would put a single entity in charge of policies related to climate change, water resource management, and pollution, says Dabo Guan, a climate change economist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.
The new arrangement “can potentially give enforcement teeth to climate regulations,” says Ranping Song, a climate change expert with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. He explains that the National Development and Reform Commission, which until now has taken the lead on addressing climate change, lacked nationwide enforcement capabilities. That capacity is especially important as China’s environmental efforts have gradually shifted from guidance to hard constraints, such as an emissions cap and trade regime, Song says. But he notes that climate change policy “requires integration and coordination across almost all sectors; there is no magic bullet to address all the challenges.” And there are other social challenges, such as poverty reduction, that need to be addressed simultaneously, Guan adds.
The science ministry will gain in stature by absorbing the Natural Science Foundation of China, the nation’s main source of peer-reviewed science funding. The science ministry has tended to take a less transparent approach to doling out its own research funds, scientists here say. They worry about whether the foundation’s independent peer-review process will stay intact after the move.