Ting Guan

China allows local governments a lot of say in implementing environmental policy. This system may lead to uneven outcomes, especially when compared to environmental pioneers like Germany. But in light of vast regional differences, ‘one size fits all environmental policy implementation’ will not work in China. 

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China has announced a number of impressive environmental strategies and specific plans, but observers often worry that weak implementation may lead to the failure of China’s green transformation. Around the world, Germany is seen as a pioneer and a model for other countries when it comes to environmental policy. German policy-makers and bureaucrats are famous for crafting detailed rules and regulations and for strictly and efficiently enforcing them. This is admirable. But this wouldn’t work in China.

During the past five years, I interviewed many local officials from different parts of China. I asked them to describe the challenges they faced in implementing environmental policies. The reactions varied by region. Officials from central and western areas criticised many policies as incompatible with local conditions. “We are still extremely poor and people want to get rich first”, was a typical answer to my questions. Officials in more affluent eastern and coastal regions were more likely to agree with the policies as such, but to complain about a lack of resources that would be necessary for their implementation, citing budgetary shortfalls and staff shortages. 

The message from these interviews is clear: ‘one size fits all environmental policy implementation’ will not work in China. China is large and unevenly developed. There is a gap between urban and rural areas as well as between regions. Due to different stages of economic development and different degrees of environmental degradation, the willingness and determination of local governments to “fight pollution” varies greatly.

Although China has a top-down political decision-making process, implementation relies on tailoring central policies to fit local conditions and interests. Local priorities, such as maintaining economic growth or socioeconomic stability, have to be balanced with environmental goals. And secondly, local capacities and resources have to be available.

The German model is not for China

Germany is known for its programmed implementation of environmental policies: the policies explicitly spell out the procedures for implementation. Once a decision has been taken, every implementing organisation is requested to follow them. Ökoprofit, a cooperation program between the public and the private sector to promote cleaner production, is a good example. Enrolled businesses receive government subsidies. Participation is voluntary, but once a company has signed up, it is required to follow a strict set of rules for fund allocation and project verification and certification.

On the other hand, China mostly chooses an adaptive model of policy implementation. In this case, policy-makers have a general agreement on the goals, but the policy can be modified to match conditions on the ground. Since the beginning of the administrative decentralisation process in the 1970s, local governments in China have enjoyed increasing leeway to adapt central policies to better align with local needs and preferences. This is especially true for environmental policy.

A closer look at cleaner production projects in China can show why the programmed implementation approach that works so well in Germany is not an option for China.

Cleaner Production (CP), one of the most important concepts to improve the environmental performance of industries, was first introduced to China in the 1990s. Contrary to Germany, central CP policies only define certain basic principles and general regulations, leaving it up to local governments to guide CP implementation. As a result, local CP actions vary widely from one region to another.

Based on my fieldwork and research between 2012 and 2015, I would like to use a comparison between two cities to illustrate my point. For the sake of protecting my sources who gave me access to internal documents, let’s call them City H and City G. Both cities are provincial capitals. Under similar central policies, the number of CP projects conducted in city H until 2014 (since when) was almost 40 times as high as in City G, while the number of participating businesses in H was more than 65 times that of G. Even when factoring in that the population of H is 2.5 times bigger than that of G and that the industry size in H is about four times that of G, the gap is remarkable.

Chinese localities need more flexibility

Why did the quantity and quality of CP projects in these two cities vary so much? I am convinced that weak implementation cannot explain the different policy outcomes in these two cities.

There is no doubt that both local governments played major roles in shaping the respective policies and projects. Compared to G, H has a more developed economy and better availability of technology services. As a result, the government of H is more motivated and capable to implement central CP policies than the government of G. A government official in H told me that, ‘CP is exactly what we need now. We are focusing on how to incentivise enterprises to actively participate.’ This was very different from what I heard from a local official in G who said: ‘We want to catch up with the east of China. This is why economic growth is still much more important for us than implementing CP, which can hardly deliver short-term political benefits.’

Due to the different speed of economic development and the uneven endowment of resources in Chinese regions, local governments will continue to need the discretion to better tailor central policies to local conditions. In the foreseeable future, the pattern of China’s green transformation will be equally uneven and diversified as its economic transition has been over the previous decades. So we should not be surprised if the implementation of environmental policy keeps lagging behind national goals in parts of China, while some more advanced regions end up becoming global green pioneers.