Keeping It Simple

The prefecture will be removed from the administrative chain, in the Central Government’s plan to simplify its administrative system


A plan is currently underway to simplify the Chinese Government’s administrative structure, with the draft expected to be complete in 2005. A major change in the system will be the removal of prefecture administration from the regional administrative chain, meaning provinces will directly lead counties.

Currently China’s local administrative structure is made up of the governments of province, prefecture (city), county and township. The reform process will mean merging small towns and counties, increasing the number of provinces by cutting some large ones into small ones, and removing the prefecture administration in the chain of regional administration, thus paving the way for adopting the three-level administrative division, namely, province, county and township.

Administrative Redundancies

Due to complicated conditions in different regions, the reform will start from grass-roots administration and take 15 years to complete countrywide, said Dai Junliang, head of place names with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

GATEWAY TO SIMPLICITY: The seat of Caoji Township Government. Small and larger townships are merging to simplify administration

Since 1952, China began to introduce a four-level administrative division—province, prefecture (city), county and township.

But, as an affiliated institute of the provincial government, the prefecture was an ineffectual organ and could not represent a level of government, as people’s congresses and people’s governments were not established in prefectures.

Most prefecture headquarters are located in large cities, employing a considerable number of administrative personnel. To simplify the local administrative system, on February 15, 1983, the State Council issued a document on reforming Party and administrative organizations in prefectures and cities, requiring prefecture administrations to merge with city governments.

In the process of implementing the document, however, most prefectures changed themselves into cities and established city-level people’s congresses. As a result, the former ineffectual administrative organization became a virtual government between provinces and counties. This, as a matter of fact, has violated China’s Constitution, which prescribes three-level (prefecture-county-township) administration.

Currently China has 332 prefecture-level administrative establishments. Of this total, 265 are cities, governing 70 percent of the country’s counties and 80 percent of the national population.

Prefectures Incompatible With Counties

Under the planned economic system, the prefecture administration once promoted the development of local economies. Along with the progress of the market economy, however, problems have sprung up in prefecture administration. They are mainly displayed in four aspects:

NEW LOOK OF A COUNTY TOWN: With the introduction of the three-level administration system, all counties will be subject to direct administration of provinces

• Uneven distribution of interests. This is the prime cause creating contradictions between prefectures and counties. As most prefectures lack funds to build cities, they collect money from counties for urban construction, but fail to assist counties with the development of their own economies.

• Contradictions in management. Prior to prefectures changing into virtual governments, counties enjoyed larger decision-making power in many aspects. Currently prefectures deprive counties of much of their power.

• Unequal treatment between urban and rural areas. While both urban and rural areas are under prefecture jurisdiction, urban areas are often given priority in the distribution of profits and interests.

• Overlapping and overstaffed institutions. The overlapping and overstaffed institutions in prefectures and cities have led to low working efficiency, high cost of operation and less vitality for economic development.

Too Many City Types

According to Dai, following the tide of shifting prefectures to cities, many counties followed suit. The county-to-city shifting process has lasted for 20 years and is still going on today, making an ambiguous concept in administrative division. Currently there are five city levels: municipalities directly under the Central Government, secondary provincial-level cities, prefectural-level cities, secondary prefectural-level cities and county-level cities. People are often confused with such classifications.

HERE TODAY GONE TOMORROW: Taole County in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the smallest administrative county in China, disappears on February 11 as part of the process of reform of the local administrative system

Prefectures, under the leadership of provincial governments, govern several cities and counties. The formation of this structure is partly because the administration of provinces cannot reach every county under their jurisdiction, caused by complicated geographical conditions, vast land area of each province, uneven economic development in different regions, and undeveloped communication and transportation facilities in some places.

“But the development of past decades, particularly the establishment of a socialist market economy and the improvement of communication and transportation facilities, enable many provinces to directly lead counties. Hence prefecture leadership should be removed,” said Dai.

In fact, China began to merge towns in 1998, reducing their number from 92,476 in 1984 to 38,464 by the end of 2003.

The government will continue to adjust administrative divisions of small cities, city districts and counties. Currently China has more than 700 cities at the county level. Of them, 300 have a population of at least 200,000 and 200 no more than 100,000.

In the years to come, reform in administrative division will continue in cities, city districts and counties, except for those located in border areas.

After reform, prefectures will remain their administrative ranking which equals that of counties.

The success of the introduction of the province-to-county administrative system lies in the scientific division of responsibilities of governments at different levels, particularly those of the Central Government and governments at provincial and county levels. Upper-level governments should not interfere in lower governments in their exercise of power, said Dai.

In addition, the number of provinces (municipalities directly under the Central Government and autonomous regions) will increase to 50-60 from the present 31 (including Taiwan) by cutting one large province into two, establishing new provinces with each covering areas currently under jurisdiction of several provinces, and converting large cities into municipalities directly under the Central Government.

Meanwhile, small counties will be merged. This will reduce the number of counties and facilitate the direct administration of provinces over counties.

Reform will also be carried out in judicial and financial systems to cater to the needs of these new administrative divisions.

Zhejiang Province has undertaken pilot reforms in the three-level administrative system since 2002. Prefectures have transferred 12 categories of economic management power to county governments, including planning, economy and trade, foreign trade, land resources, transportation and construction.

On February 25, 2004, the government of Anhui Province also declared it would institute the three-level administrative system.

“Based on the experience of the two pilots, we will spread the system throughout the whole country, said Dai.