CSR Blog: How Local Politics Might Undermine China’s Environmental Policy Ambition

By Zhuoran Li

Since the “Reform and Open Up” that began in 1978, China has achieved magnificent economic development. China’s real annual GDP grew 9.5 percent on average from 1979 to 2018. The World Bank describes the growth of China as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”[1] The economic growth not only makes China the 2nd largest economy in the world, but it also lifted 800 million people out of poverty. As a byproduct of this significant economic growth, however, China faces significant environmental degradation and carbon emission problems. By 2005, China surpassed the United States and became the world’s largest carbon emitter.[2] This has caused significant air pollution problems that have emerged into a public health crisis. Coal-related air pollution has reduced life expectancy in northern China by 5.5 years.[3]

Up to the 2000s, Chinese officials saw pollution as a price that China had to pay to achieve high-speed economic growth and to escape poverty.[4] Therefore, they viewed the international insistence that China must reduce carbon emission as a plot to contain China’s economic development.[5] The Chinese leadership also tried to resist any perceived attempt by foreign powers to interfere in China’s domestic affairs in the name of environmental protection.[6] Therefore, China opposed any international treaty that regulates carbon emission. During the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, the Chinese delegation sabotaged the negotiation process and blocked a more substantial agreement from being reached.[7] 

However, since the Copenhagen Summit, China experienced a major attitude shift toward environmental policy. In 2011, the notorious smog problem in Beijing raised widespread concerns on Chinese social media and even threatened the legitimacy of the CCP. The Chinese people questioned CCP’s governance capability and demanded a solution. Facing the growing popular uproar, the Chinese government started to adopt a sustainable growth plan. In the 12th Five-Year Plan published in 2011, China included clean energy and carbon emission targets.[8] In 2014, Xi Jinping coined the term “New Norm (xin changtai 新常态)” to describe a new phase of Chinese economic development that focuses less on maximizing GDP growth and more on environmental protection.[9]

As a result, China started to embrace international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, China became an active contributor in forging a new international consensus on climate change. China signed bilateral agreements on climate change and carbon emission reduction with Britain, France, Germany, India, and the United States between 2014 and 2015. The Sino-US Joint Announcement on Climate Change in 2014 and the Sino-US Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in 2015 laid the groundwork for the Paris Summit.[10] During the Paris Summit, China submitted its carbon targets to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and to reduce carbon intensity by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels.[11] Furthermore, China played a significant role in bridging the gap between developed and developing states and convincing the developing states to join the Paris Agreement.

Although the central government fully embraces the goal to reduce carbon emission, whether China can fulfill its commitment to the Paris Agreement depends on its ability to overcome domestic obstacles. Despite having the image of a centralized party-state, China is a fragmented country; scholars often describe China’s political system as “fragmented authoritarianism.” Conflicting priorities at both local and national levels, the infighting among different agencies, and the constant tug-of-war between central and local governments hamper the execution of Chinese environmental policy.  Even though the central government understands the importance of improving environmental outcomes, it still sidelines environmental targets to maximize economic growth.[12] This is because of the infight among central agencies. Powerful pro-growth ministries, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), could undercut environmental policies that stall short-term economic development. Since 1998, the NDRC has been assigned to develop China’s plan for sustainable development, which includes the basic framework for environmental policies. Thus, the NDRC has used its power to shift priorities away from environmental protection to economic growth. For example, the NDRC green lights coal plant constructions at a speed faster than that of approvals for coal plants from the rest of the world combined.[13]

Among local leaders, enforcing environmental regulations and laws is usually one of their least priorities. Local cadres in China receive numerous responsibilities and targets under the cadre responsibility system.[14] Each target has a numerical value, and higher-ranking officials determine how well lower ranking cadres have met their targets. Then, they calculate each cadre’s total performance score and give rewards, which often mean promotions, or penalties accordingly.  Some targets are “hard targets,” which are binding and produce measurable outcomes. Others are “soft targets,” which are not binding and are not measurable in the short term. Cadres always prefer reaching hard targets over soft targets because the former weigh more in calculating their performance score.[15] As a result, enforcing environmental laws and regulations, a soft target, always takes a backseat in comparison to hard targets like economic growth. An official at the Shanghai Development and Reform Commission once claimed, “Environmental laws and regulations are important, but what about economic growth? If we enforce environmental laws too strictly, how can our private companies grow? We have to balance different priorities.”

Furthermore, local environmental protection agencies do not have independent jurisdiction. Local government and party leaders control local environmental protection agencies so that they could sacrifice environmental protection for other priorities. The CCP developed a complex administrative system to govern this vast and populous country. The vertical (tiao 条) systems are ministries and agencies that run from the national level to the local level. The horizontal (kuai 块) systems are sub-national level governments for provinces, municipalities, counties, and townships. The intersections between the tiao and kuai systems result in conflict of jurisdictions.  To further complicate the system, officials in horizontal and vertical systems often have the same official ranks, so one cannot command the other. For example, the chief of the provincial Ecology and Environment Bureau receive orders, which at times can be contradictory, from the head of the provincial government and the Minister of Ecology and Environment, but both have the same minister/provincial level ranking. Thus, local cadres must prioritize to whom they should respond, the tiao or the kuai.[16] As a result, Chinese bureaucrats have developed leadership and professional relationships to offset overlapping chains of command. Only agencies that enjoy leadership relationships that can send binding orders to other agencies; agencies with only professional relationships can only request cooperation. Under the tiao system, the higher-level official in the ministry enjoys leadership relationship. In the kuai system, the head of a sub-national regional government enjoys leadership relationship. China’s environmental protection system operates under kuai leadership. Therefore, local governments enjoy professional relationships with local environmental protection agencies, because local environmental protection agencies receive funding and staff from local governments. Therefore, the local environmental protection agency takes binding orders from the local government leader rather than its superior in the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

China has made significant progress in environmental policymaking. It has transformed from an active obstructionist of the Copenhagen Summit to a significant contributor to the Paris Summit. This transition is because of the change in Chinese domestic politics. In the 2010s, China entered the phase of New Norm growth. Beijing realized that economic growth and the environment should not be a zero-sum trade-off.  However, domestic politics is also the biggest challenge to China’s environmental policy implementation. Whether China can achieve its pledges in the Paris Agreement depends on Beijing’s ability to overcome the inefficiencies of its fragmented authoritarianism.

Zhuoran Li is a first-year M.A. candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), concentrating in International Relations with a minor in China Studies. His research interests include Chinese politics and economy, East Asian comparative studies, and East Asian national security. Z’s articles are featured in the Diplomat and the National Interest. Z can be reached at zhuoran0322@gmail.com.


[1] “China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States,” Congressional Research Service, June 25, 2019.

[2] Anthony H.F. Li, “Hopes of Limiting Global Warming? China and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” China Perspectives, No. 2016(1)

[3] Barry Naughton, The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018), 560.

[4] Li.

[5] Isabel Hilton and Oliver Kerr, “The Paris Agreement: China’s ‘New Normal’ role in international climate negotiations,” Climate Policy, Vol. 17, 2017.

[6] Li.

[7] Hilton and Kerr; Li.

[8] Hilton and Kerr.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Li.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kostka, G., & Nahm, J. (2017). Central–Local Relations: Recentralization and Environmental Governance in China. The China Quarterly, 231, 567-582. doi:10.1017/S0305741017001011

[13] “China Dominates 2020 Coal Plant Development,” Global Energy Monitor, February 2021.

[14] Kevin J O ‘Brien and Lianjiang Li, “Selective Policy Implementation in Rural China,” Comparative Politics , Jan., 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jan., 1999), 172.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lampton, David M, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, (Berkley; CA: University of California Press, 2014,) 94.

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