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The Economist: Taming Leviathan

Author: John Micklethwait
March 17, 2011


The state almost everywhere is big, inefficient and broke. It needn't be, says John Micklethwait.

THE argument sounds familiar. The disruptive reforms that have so changed the private sector should now be let loose on the public sector. The relationship between government and civil society has been that between master and servant; instead, it should be a partnership, with the state creating the right environment for companies and charities to do more of its work. The conclusion: “We are in a transition from a big state to a small state, and from a small society to a big society.”

A Republican presidential candidate in America? David Cameron rallying Britain's Tories? Neither: the speaker is supposedly China's most highly regarded bureaucrat. Last year Ma Hong won the country's national award for government innovation—a great coup for her department, which is trying to get more non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to take over parts of welfare, health and education services in the city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

The award partly reflects the whirl of activity that is Ms Ma. She has dismantled most of the controls on local NGOs: rather than be sponsored by some government department, all they have to do is register with her. She began in 2004 with industrial associations, but has extended the net to include independent charities. Almost 4,000 “social groups” are now registered—nearly double the number in 2002, when they were all tied to the state.

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