China’s environmental governance

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.

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