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The Search for Sustainable Legitimacy: Environmental Law and Bureaucracy in China

By Alex L. Wang

During China’s 11th five-year plan (2006–10), bureaucrats began to take substantial actions on environmental protection, making major investments in pollution control infrastructure and forcing the shutdown of thousands of outdated facilities and production lines. This was not accomplished through meaningful reform of a notoriously weak environmental law regime. Rather, Chinese authorities turned to cadre evaluation — the system for top-down bureaucratic personnel assessments — to set high-priority, quantitative environmental targets designed to mobilize governors, mayors, and state-owned enterprise leaders in every corner of China’s massive bureaucracy.

While conventional analysis has primarily viewed this effort through the lens of environmental protection, this Article argues that “environmental cadre evaluation” is better understood as something more fundamental. Chinese authorities have embraced environmental cadre evaluation as a tool for limiting risks to the party-state’s hold on power, using environmental protection in an unexpected way to deliver economic growth and social stability. Environmental objectives have been elevated, but primarily to the extent they support these other values as well.

But implementation problems inherent to this top-down approach abound. Local agents falsify information and shut down pollution control equipment. Closed factories are secretly reopened. These problems create an imperative for reform. Of the initiatives already under way, governance reforms that strengthen public supervision have particular advantages for resolving institutional pathologies that limit the effectiveness of China’s environmental efforts.

By examining why and how Chinese leaders have elevated environmental priorities through the cadre evaluation system, this Article seeks to offer insight into a number of broader ongoing debates — about environmental regulation in developing countries, accountability and regime survival in authoritarian states, and legal development in China.

Cite as: Alex L. Wang, The Search for Sustainable Legitimacy: Environmental Law and Bureaucracy in China, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 365 (2013).

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