China’s environmental crisis – ranging from water pollution to resource scarcity – is an issue that has gathered the attention of the Chinese public. Several studies estimate that over a million premature deaths per year are due to air pollution, in addition to the tens of billions of dollars in economic costs associated with air and water pollution. Risks from soil pollution, food safety, and chemical accidents also contribute to increased public awareness, and China has recognized the gravity of this issue. Historically, Chinese leaders have been aware of environmental problems, but a variety of factors resulted in significant challenges in enforcing environmental protection laws. Economic growth incentives, largely designated to the local level, made it difficult for regulators to act against factories that were integral to the local economy. Local protectionism, institutional design, and the incentives provided to local officials reflected the priorities of the time. The severity of the implications of China’s environmental challenges, however, have led the government to respond with a series of measures promoting an eco-civilization reform.
UCLA Professor Alex Wang evaluated the prospects for delivering such environmental performance and what the eco-civilization approach means for the legitimacy of China’s rule of law. Over the past several years, the PRC government has announced its eco-civilization narrative through a substantial number of reform documents. China’s 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans, as well as its Third and Fourth Plenum, outlined green targets regarding pollutants, energy and water, carbon efficiency, forest growth, and air quality, among other environmental issues. Wang described the “1+6 plan” of ecological civilization reform through enforcement, monitoring, cadre responsibility, environmental assets, national resource audits, and compensation for environmental harm as a holistic program intended to utilize more bureaucratic resources. Through regulatory diffusion of bureaucratic agencies, the police and courts will enjoy greater responsibilities in enforcing environmental protection laws. Wang noted that though China should certainly issue penalties for failure to abide by these rules, it is imperative that the laws are implemented without any rights violations or procedural injustice.
China has stressed its success in lifting countless people out of poverty in support of the China model. The PRC government claims that its authoritarian resilience has allowed the nation to approach its environmental challenges in a more effective way than the West has been able to respond, which in aggregation has contributed more total pollution. Many supporters argue that China has had less time to address its pollution crisis than western nations, but its ability to balance economic growth with an effective response to environmental protection issues reflects the legitimacy of the China model. The eco-civilization model follows a pattern of Chinese state planning, centralization of power, and regulatory diffusion, with a limited inclusion of public participation and markets. China will launch a national carbon trading market with top-down state involvement. Though China will continue to stress economic growth, there are ecological red lines businesses cannot cross, and the government will adopt a stricter control of the bureaucracy to enforce them. These reforms will result in an increase in police regulation, and an incremental expansion of the judicial role.
Wang argued that although China’s environmental reform is by no means pursuing a democratic rule of law, its primary goal is to deliver performance and convince the public that its system is successful. Critics may point to environmental problems as a restraint on growth and a factor for social unrest and instability. Economic slowdown may be framed as a justification and a necessary result of China’s environmental reforms, given the stricter standards to which businesses are being held. Weak checks and accountability, however, present challenges in demonstrating effective performance. Additionally, those observing China’s eco-civilization narrative with a cynical eye may view the reforms as a flexible propaganda tool to support other domestic and international initiatives, such as One Belt One Road. Nevertheless, emissions data from factories, largely unavailable to the public until several years ago, provides a valuable tool for authorities, regulators, and public legal litigation. Best practices in western environmental regulatory agencies are in many ways aligned with China’s bureaucratic governance approach; though western democracies incorporate more public participation and have greater transparency, the basic structure of setting targets, enforcing laws, and providing subsidies suggests a higher likelihood of success for China’s environmental performance in years to come.