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China's environmental governance

Ma Xiangcong


China faces an ecological crisis, but its environmental authorities are too weak to cope, says Ma Xiangcong. Greater enforcement, improved departmental coordination and public supervision are needed.

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Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Adminstration (SEPA), refers to ecological civilisation as a type of society that humans are now moving towards, having developed through the primitive, agricultural and industrial stages of civilisation.

The global environment is now in crisis, but we are only in the initial stages of such a transformation. There is still a long way to go, both in China and in developed countries such as the US. First we need to change the way we think, then put these changes into action – and alter the direction of society’s development.

The Communist Party of China has proposed a scientific, people-centered and sustainable model of growth for the new century. The realisation of a socialist ecological civilisation requires a scientific concept of development, which will mean governance according to rule of law. China has already established basic environmental laws, but weak enforcement has resulted in a worsening environment.

Weak authorities

The environmental authorities have limited powers, and this is one reason for China’s failure to implement environmental law.

Current legislation only allows the authorities to make suggestions and issue fines; measures that are inadequate to deal with illegal activity. For example, only local government holds the power to force a company to make changes within a certain time limit, while the environmental authorities do not. Since the fines they are entitled to issue are small, it can cost more to obey the law than to break it. China urgently needs to give the environmental authorities greater powers of enforcement.

Of course, enforcement and punishment are not enough – incentives are also needed. A range of methods should be used to encourage individuals and companies to engage in environmental protection.

China’s environmental administration is also too weak, and SEPA should be renamed the Ministry of the Environment to allow its full participation in national decision making. Local environmental authorities should also be bolstered. At the present, these authorities are subordinate to local government; they are reliant on them both for funding and enforcement, making it hard to act freely of local interests and protect the environment.

There is also a need for coordination between the environmental authorities and other government organisations. The environment is a factor for all aspects of government, and it is necessary for the environmental authorities to work closely with other departments. At the moment, there is a huge amount of departmental overlap: water pollution is the responsibility of the environmental authorities, but the water itself is managed by the Ministry of Water Resources. Sewage is dealt with by the Ministry of Construction, but groundwater falls within the realm of the Ministry of Land and Resources.

The principles of the current arrangement are reasonable: environmental policy is set by government, overseen by the environmental authorities and implemented by various government departments. But in practice, this is badly coordinated. In other countries this problem has been dealt with through greater departmental communication. This is where China is failing, with a lack of legislative clarity regarding the role, powers and responsibilities of each department.

Enforcing the law

The most prominent issue in the enforcement of environmental law is the government itself breaking the law. Land appropriation, pollution, excessive mining and the failure to carry out environmental impact assessments: much of this happens due to a failure to act on the part of government – or with the government’s tacit consent, approval or active participation. An example of this emerged in 2006, when SEPA revealed over a dozen hydroelectric projects that had broken the Environmental Impact Assessment Law.

Local governments will protect polluting businesses in the name of local interests. A lack of awareness among local government officials – about the environment, environmental law and the rule of law in general – has allowed this to continue. It is essential to improve the situation.  

Environmental enforcement also suffers from a lack of public participation and social supervision. The environment affects everyone; we must all participate in managing it. Although environmental law allows for the public to report illegal activity, regulations governing actual public participation are not detailed enough.

Environmental awareness among Chinese people is low, and many are unaware that their own behaviour damages the environment. Many suffer from the effects of pollution but accept it as normal, not knowing they can protect their own rights, and realising only when it is too late. It is essential to raise awareness about environmental protection and the rule of law.

Environmental oversight

Promoting the development of an ecological civilisation requires a range of actions, including the implementation of concrete legislative and enforcement measures.

The principles of ecological civilisation must guide legislation. This should not be restricted to laws on the environment and resources; constitutional, administrative, civil, criminal and economic law must also be included to build a set of laws which will ensure social and economic growth while protecting the environment and promoting an ecological civilisation.

A solid system of environmental oversight is needed to achieve this:

- China must increase the party's supervision of the environment. In recent years, the Communist Party Central Committee put greater emphasis on protecting the environment, and has made a number of decisions to this end. It is now necessary to increase the role of the party at all levels and to strengthen party organisations' supervision of subordinate bodies to ensure environmental protection is implemented.

- Environmental law enforcement work, the courts and prosecutors must be better supervised by the People's Representative Congresses and their standing committees.

- The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference must oversee environmental protection work.

- China must improve government supervision of subordinate departments; higher levels of government must supervise lower levels of government; administrative complaint and redress procedures should be strengthened.

- Public supervision should be stepped up; all sectors of society should be brought in to combat those who break the law – including government.

- The media’s role in supervising the environment must be strengthened, which should include analysis, the exposing of polluters and those who otherwise damage the environment and praising good work in protecting the environment.


Ma Xiancong is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Law

This article was first published in Green Leaf magazine

Homepage photo by Mark Hobbs

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Party supervision

One thing I don't really understand is why "China must increase the party's supervision of the environment", but not increase the relevant department/authorities' power to prevent the pollution? Wouldnt that be more productive?
- J.L




Local governments

Many local governments in China care more about GDP growth than local people needs, such as environment protection, energy saving, education, health care, employment, housing, etc. They have been targeting fast economic development and considering increasing income as their priorities. Enforcing the law on environment protection is much harder for local officials and people who may not fully understand the meanings of it than doing the criminal law. The central government needs to continue educating local officials on the environment protection, and to make the law more practical and enforceable in localities, but I don’t bet on the action to be taken soon for now.




Carefully Worded

It's an understandable question, and I would welcome someone from the PRC to comment on it more frankly.

The way I see it though, "increased party supervision" is synonymous with saying "SEPA deserves more funding". There clearly lies a financial gap between the work SEPA and local EPB's are mandated to do and the money that they can actually spend on enforcement.

SEPA is politically impotent compared with other State level ministries, while local EPB's remain wedded to money from local governments uninterested in enforcing environmental laws as well as pollution surcharges (meaning they need pollution for continued funding).



Tougher challenge

Regarding environment protection, China attaches more importance to promotion and education than policy improvement and adoption of new measures.

However, to protect the environment should be more important than just a noble slogan, as its efficiency in environmental efforts will have an impact on economic growth and the lives of citizens.






Enforcement should be a priority

Response to Comment 4:
While your right, I think China can already boast plenty of good environmental policies and endless examples of good regulations and use of indicators.

It's on the quality of inspections, the environmental science used by local EPBs, and enforcing laws that have been on the books for years and years. Unreliable environmental statistics are a great example of good money, policy, time and effort being wasted because of shoddy science or mixed morals on the behalf of local authorities.

How is the current system for auditing the work of local EPBs ? It needs to be done by outside evaluators in order to downplay the effects of guanxi.

It's the institutional carrying capacity to handle all the work expected of them (in the face of difficult local dynamics) that is the central problem.



hollow words

Talk of china's new and improved regulations are just talk until senior executives at chinese and foreign companies start doing hard jail time for violating these laws.








Empty threats are hollow

Threats like this are useless; senior executives have way too much guanxi for them to be spending any time in jail. And as far as foreign firms are concerned, reports show many are on the leading edge when it comes to environmental protection. It's the SOEs and TVEs that seem to be the biggest infractors.

Again, these regulations, for the most part, AREN'T new, they've been on the books for ages, albeit modified from time to time.

Throwing in white collar folks (or government bureaucrats) for infractions are a time honoured but ineffectual method of enforcement. It's a political act designed to scare monger, it won't realistically result in changed behaviour.

Steep financial penalties, on one hand (not the current slaps on the wrist), and tax incentives on the other -- if properly implmented -- can be effective.





全球环境研究所 高级项目开发官员

Roles of local congress and consultative conference

Please forgive my hypercriticism. This is all what environmental law experts could suggest.

In China, suggestions by environmental law scholars are obviously not strong and effective enough, and thus help and supports from other disciplines are needed.

It is worth to carry out serious research into the functions of local people's congresses and the political consultative conferences.

The people's congresses above the county level across China have been representing a new power, which is divided into two groups: one is for environmental protection, and another is against it.

Thus, how will the congresses to balance the two opinions (powers) and increase the publicipation in enviromental protection? These are environmental policy issues.

by senior programme development office from the Global Environmental Institute



GDP plus environment is criteria to assess officials' work

So far, China's central government only uses the GDP to assess the work by local governments and does not pay attention to environment quality and efforts in environmental protection.

This is harmful to the environment. It will be an incentive approach to include environment factor as an element to assess local governments' performance. If so, local governments will then take measures to deal with pollution.


Wether you are a business traveller, a leisure traveller, or a combination of both, your need would be the same: the non-conventional standard model.
(translated by Ge Bo)


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