Discovery Guides Areas


China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations



Environmental Governance

green logo
Seal of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA)

Numerous avenues are being explored for mitigating China's environmental crisis, and implementing reforms requires an effective governance structure. A top-down, authoritarian structure has great advantages when a country decides to act on contentious issues, as China did to control its population. On the other hand, such governments may have little incentive to deal with environmental problems; they may prefer to disregard or hide them, as occurred in the Soviet Union, typified by the virtual disappearance of the Aral Sea following decades of communist rule. An open system like the United States, by contrast, allows for a vibrant network of environmental groups that perform a watchdog function.

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) is China's main environmental agency, roughly equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. Historically, SEPA has been relatively weak, as priority has been given to development. At the top of the power structure, SEPA has been overruled by high-level agencies, while local governments, often empowered to enforce SEPA rulings, often have agendas of their own. One source explains that, "Over the past twenty years, economic bureaucracies as well as provincial and lower-level regional governments have been SEPA's chief organizational rivals because they believed that harsher environmental regulations would force coal mines to shut down, power plants to reduce energy production, logging industries to lay off workers, and, most importantly, localities to slow economic growth" (Zusman & Turner, 123). Rapidity of development has often overruled environmental concerns.

photo of Pan Yue with flags
Deputy Minister of the Environment Pan Yue, noted for bold statements regarding China's environment
Facing severe environmental degradation, and in reaction to outside criticism, China has recently shown heightened awareness of environmental problems, with some government officials acting as strong advocates. Local groups have entered the environmental governance mix, as have international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Such NGOs as Friends of Nature and the Worldwatch Institute are now working in conjunction with the Chinese government. Indeed, China now considers international expertise as crucial; there has been "a sea change in the formerly authoritarian and isolated approach to lawmaking in the Chinese government" (Ferris & Zhang, 96).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, local groups are becoming stronger players in pointing out environmental shortcomings. Indeed, China is tolerating, and at times even encouraging, a growing number of watchdog groups: "one of the most important sources for improving China's environment is the Chinese public" (Economy, 116). Although always contentious, and often unacknowledged, public protest is a growing part of the picture: "In the summer of 2005, the central government for the first time announced that during the preceding year 3.76 million Chinese, mostly people in disadvantaged groups, took part in 74,000 mass protests" (Turner & Zhi 169). Of course even in countries with a tradition of protest, such actions are often perceived as unpatriotic. In China environmental groups must tread with care, undertaking a "balancing act of carrying out projects that support government goals while also periodically taking risks and challenging the government" (Turner & Zhi 168).

Still, the rhetoric of environmental reform has not always manifested itself in action. Bai and Peijun argue that efforts to clean up China's Huai River basin fall far short of the government's claims. They explain that, "the measures adopted under the Huai Pollution Control Plan were essentially mass campaigns and end-of-pipe approaches. The campaign approach was inadequate as it targeted only the phenomena and not the root cause" (12). A better approach would be to have cleaner manufacturing and greater conservation, rather than allowing problems to accumulate before beginning a clean-up effort.

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