Throughout the modern era, China has confronted formidable environmental
challenges, which have not diminished — indeed, they have grown increasingly
menacing. This fact has been amply and meticulously documented and is neither
fundamentally disputed in the academic/professional community nor seriously
questioned in strategically located economic and political circles. The opposite is
true. There are no sizeable departures from the overwhelmingly negative picture
that continues to be painted in the empirically underpinned literature and the
severity of the problem is largely acknowledged by captains of industry and widely
recognised by high-level policy managers.
In the most recent comprehensive survey of the Chinese ecological scene,
a plethora of persistent woes is poignantly highlighted.
The author relentlessly
pinpoints acute symptoms of pervasive decay across the entire environmental
system: the air, human physical and psychological functioning, non-human species
(both condition and survival), soil (encompassing forests, grasslands and wetlands)
and water (including availability, control and quality).
They may not always
emanate from the same sources but are typically interconnected and tend to generate
The manifestations and impacts extend well beyond China’s borders, a pattern aggravated by ecologically disruptive Chinese activities pursued
elsewhere (together constituting China’s “global environmental footprint”).
As indicated, this biologically, economically, health-wise, materially,
politically and socially costly set of circumstances has not gone unnoticed by the
policy establishment, which has also been subject to external pressures, at times
intense in nature, on that score.
Besides mere recognition of the magnitude of the
difficulties faced, specific measures have been introduced over time to alleviate
The responses may have not been fully commensurate with the enormity
of the threat and they may have not kept pace with the rapid deterioration in
ecological conditions, but an environmental governance regime — even if flawed,
insufficiently elastic and partial — has gradually emerged.
The laying of the foundation for an institutional façade to address mounting
ecological strains tentatively began in 1972, following the United Nations
Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm.9
This is noteworthy
because the process started to unfold six years before the curtain descended on
the 1949–1978 revolutionary period, characterised by “Mao Zedong’s war against nature”,
with the adoption of the “open-door policy” by the reformist leadership
spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping. However, the initial move forward was not sustained
on a meaningful scale and, quantitatively speaking, a significant expansion of the
environmental governance regime coincided with the transition from a Mao-style
hard authoritarianism to a Deng-type soft variant.
This is broadly consistent with “force of ideas” accounts of regulatory
The proposition is amply reflected in some elaborate and
insightful explorations of Chinese ecological realities.
The underlying assumption
is that “political repression of ordinary people [is commonly] mirrored in an attack
Pre-1978 state-inspired efforts to rework human souls accordingly
often took the form of political campaigns harnessing collective labour to “[m]
ake mountains to bow their heads, make rivers flow uphill”, as a Mao-era poem
It is posited that “Mao’s uneasiness with intellectuals allowed him
to dismiss the most elementary of scientific principles and celebrate his notion, as
a military general, that mobilizing the country into a vast army would allow him to
defeat all enemies, both human and non-human”.
Yet, the ideologically motivated strategic shift from hard to soft authoritarianism
has merely proved to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the
construction of a viable environmental governance regime. Historical legacy, while
a dynamic variable rather than an ever-present constant, cannot be overlooked.
Widespread environmental degradation, albeit marked by cyclical peaks and
troughs, has long been observed in China and preceded the Communist Revolution
and the extraordinary Maoist excesses that ensued.
A two-dimensional cultural
perspective has been invoked to partly illuminate this phenomenon.
The more sympathetic interpretation leans towards the view that an originally
enlightened Confucian thought system has experienced a subsequent corrosion due
to a combination of exogenous influences and endogenously induced distortions (by misguided and self-serving elites).
In the process, a morally unadulterated
form of Confucianism has been transformed into a compromised one (“NeoConfucianism”), with highly adverse consequences for the fragile ecosystem from
a long-term standpoint — a trend that has apparently not run its course.
The less favourable reading of the momentum generated by cultural forces
is derived from the perception that the enlightened set of beliefs singled out
has traditionally been confined to the purely intellectual fringes of society and
has scarcely ever exerted a palpable impact on daily lifestyles and government
Contemporary content analysis (of the qualitative type) and survey
evidence are relied upon in this context to demonstrate that elite and grassroots
attitudes, while not static, have been slow to evolve and may be regarded, even if
progressively less so at present, as a constraining factor in assessing environmental
progress or lack thereof.
Whatever side of the cultural picture serves as the basis for organising historical
material, a pattern recurrently emerges of a relentless quest for power by the State,
or the rulers/would-be rulers controlling or seeking to control its machinery,
which frequently culminated in a material transformation of the ecosystem for the
purposes of warfare.
The 248-year-long Warring States period, during which 590
major armed conflicts were witnessed, dramatically reflects this propensity because
it featured an uncomfortably tight relationship between the intensity of military
campaigns and the extent of environmental disruption.
Rather disappointingly, post-war political realignment and physical rebuilding
seldom brought tangible relief. On the contrary, the parties that prevailed normally
pressed on to gain legitimacy and tighten their grip on the reins of power by
pursuing large-scale projects that brought serious damage on the ecosystem.
grand but environmentally costly designs implemented by the first emperor of the
Qin dynasty, widely acclaimed for uniting six autonomous political regions and
creating a centralised State without precedent in Chinese history, are a telling case
The war destruction–post-war reconstruction cycle, with both phases
unambiguously harmful from an ecological perspective, is not without parallels in
the modern era. The validity of this argument is implicitly, albeit at times selectively,
acknowledged in the literature on the evolution of China’s environmental governance
regime under communist rule in its hard and soft incarnations. For instance, in what constitutes in several respects a theoretically sophisticated portrayal of Chinese
policy development in the past six decades or so three paradigms are identified
in order to pinpoint key strategic transitions in managing the country’s complex
socio-economic system in its ecological setting.
In an attempt to maintain a “politically neutral” tone, the first stage, extending
from 1949 to 1978, has been characterised as an attempt to leapfrog the state of
backwardness prevailing in the aftermath of the turbulence occasioned by prolonged
external aggression/domination, compounded by ideologically fuelled homebred violence, and close the gap with leading industrialised nations (“catching
This terminological manoeuvring notwithstanding the actual
depiction bears the hallmarks of war-like conflicts because of the intensity of class
and factional struggles, as well as the onslaught on nature highlighted previously.
The second stage, lasting from 1978 to 2003, has been equated with a singleminded drive to improve material well-being, to the virtual exclusion of other
pivotal societal goals (“GDPism”).
This is noteworthy because the corollary is
that early reform era seemingly greater recognition of the risks inherent in severe
environmental degradation, while not without long-term significance has not
necessarily been strong enough to prompt a fundamental reordering of strategic
priorities and/or has not resulted in sufficiently effective policy measures to combat
the problem (including sound and determined implementation). Predominantly
unbalanced development has been pursued for at least another 25 years, with dire
ecological consequences (“the dark side of this economic activity was… resource
depletion and… pollution”),
as historically observed during periods of post-war
physical rebuilding (coupled with political stabilisation).
That is not to say that the goal of healthy economic growth, accompanied by
full employment, has receded into the background. It remains high, perhaps even
top, priority. The present strategic positioning is akin to “constrained GDPism”,
rather than one reflecting a decisive move towards environmental sustainability.
Indeed, the latter may not be an entirely appropriate objective for a country facing
formidable demographic, political and socio-economic challenges. A less ambitious
but more realistic aspiration would be to seek ecological modernisation,
entails, if and where feasible, the simultaneous pursuit of greater material well-being
and environmental harmony through institutional adaptation and enhancement,
technological innovation and diffusion and similar initiatives.
Progression towards ecological modernisation should not of course be equated
with its realisation. At this juncture, Chinese policymakers’ construction of
environmental conditions may not fully match the vision embodied in this intricate
Moreover, changes in government preferences alone, even if selectively
combined with those at the grassroots level, cannot precipitate a far-reaching and
system-wide rebalancing, certainly not in the foreseeable future.
post-2003 paradigm shift materialised so late (lending support to the proposition
that it takes a crisis of major proportions to “puncture” the strategic “equilibrium”
prevailing in the ecological domain in China)
that deep re-engineering of the
environmental governance regime inevitably constitutes a daunting undertaking.
Against this complicated and difficult backdrop, the aim of the present paper
is to assess the potential effectiveness of the numerous 2014 adjustments to the
country’s Environmental Protection Law (Revised Law), the first meaningful
reworking of the legal architecture in this delicate and problematic realm in the
past quarter of a century. However, no genuinely comprehensive and specifically
focused evaluation is offered. Rather, the purpose is to broadly establish, from a
holistic perspective, whether and to what extent the new law resolutely addresses
the underlying inertia and frailties of the whole regulatory system, which are
The weaknesses identified are multifaceted and wide-ranging. As such, they
cannot readily be attributed to a single overarching factor. Nevertheless, palpable
linkages may be discerned, reflecting an absence of an authoritative fabric, a
decidedly partial design, a deficient organisational blueprint, haphazard execution,
inadequate reinforcement mechanisms, ineffective signalling, multiple objectives
involving complicated trade-offs, non-existence of viable checks and balances, a
pervasive sense of across-the-board looseness, pronounced political inequalities,
a shallow foundation and subservience to special interests. Thorough, properly
calibrated and painstakingly implemented legal reform may prove instrumental in
helping to alleviate these deep-rooted shortcomings.
The third section of the paper endeavours to evaluate whether that is a
realistic medium-term prospect. The verdict rendered acknowledges the scope and
significance of the Revised Law but deems its potential impact to be relatively
limited in the foreseeable future. The caution displayed in the face of the ambitious
re-engineering sought stems from concerns pertaining to the less than far-reaching
measures introduced in some crucial areas (eg, public interest litigation), nonremodelling of the traditional (ie, essentially intact for the past six-and-a-half
decades) socialist-type power pyramid, persistence of rule-by-law and quality of
execution, with the last three impediments to progress accorded particularly heavy
weight in the equation.