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The Organization of Environmental Protection in China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


In March 1998, the Ninth National People's Congress swept in a radical reform of government administration. When the dust had settled, the number of government ministry-level bodies had been reduced from 40 to 29, and 50 per cent of government employees had been slated for elimination from governmental payrolls within three years. Amidst this massive effort to cut central government administration, the environmental protection administration emerged as a bureaucratic exception: after years of lobbying, it was finally upgraded to ministerial status. With this unexpected promotion during a time of strict administrative austerity, the new Jiang Zemin-Zhu Rongji administration issued a clear signal that environmental problems were a serious central government concern in need of increased attention.

China's Environment
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1998

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1. Daniel, Kwan, “Cutback tackles red-tape malaise: ‘The government is handling many affairs it should not handle, cannot handle,”’ South China Morning Post, 7 March 1998, p. 8Google Scholar; Erik, Eckholm, “New China leader promises reforms for every sector,” The New York Times, 20 March 1998, p A1.Google Scholar

2. Chan Yee, Honet al.Green body upgraded to ministry,” South China Morning Post, 2 April 1998, p. 10.Google Scholar

3. For recent reports of environmental conditions in China see Clear Water, Blue Skies: China's Environment in the New Century, (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1997)Google Scholar; Mark, Hertsgaard, “Our real China problem,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 280, No. 5 (1997), pp. 97114Google Scholar; How the statistics stack up in the environmental crisis,” South China Morning Post, 19 March 1998, p. 9Google Scholar; Nicholas D., Kristoff, “Across Asia a pollution disaster hovers,” The New York Times, 28 November 1997, pp. A1 and A10Google Scholar; and Daniel, Kwan, “NPC calls for action to curb urban pollution; inspection team says problem ‘grave,’” South China Morning Post, 4 07 1996, p. 11.Google Scholar

4. For a case study of how the norms and institutional structures of the reforms affect implementation of one particular environmental policy, the discharge fee system, see Abigail R., Jahiel, “The contradictory impact of reform for environmental protection,” The China Quarterly, No. 149 (1997), pp. 81103Google Scholar

5. On the issue of decentralization of the Chinese economy see Susan, Shirk, The Logic of Economic Reform in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).Google Scholar

6. Several scholars have observed this phenomenon of local government intervention in a variety of policy contexts. See, for example, Jean C., Oi, “The role of the local state in China's transitional economy,” The China Quarterly, No. 144 (1995), p. 1144Google Scholar, and Kenneth, Lieberthal, Governing China: From Revolution through Reform (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), p. 316.Google Scholar

7. Prior to the 1998 administrative reforms, this agency was referred to as the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).Google Scholar

8. The State Environmental Protection Administration and provincial Environmental Protection Bureaus do occasionally provide finances for environmental organs at lower levels of the administrative hierarchy. However, these grants are for specific projects, not operating funds, and they are certainly not funds that local environmental agencies can expect to receive on a yearly basis. In addition, local environmental agencies have developed ways of generating their own funds, but some of these financial sources create their own problems for environmental protection, as is discussed below.Google Scholar

9. Elsewhere in this volume, Vermeer provides a good discussion of investment in pollution control which stresses that investment levels for environmental protection differ markedly from province to province.Google Scholar

10. The piece by Harkness in this volume discusses the issue of regional differences and staffing in China's forest reserves.Google Scholar

11. Interview 18, Summer 1991 and Professor Cheng Zhengkang, lecture for environmental law class, Beijing University, March 1991. All interviews referred to in this article were conducted by the author with central, provincial, city and county environmental protection officials in Beijing, Anyang, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xi'an and Xuzhou in 1991, 1992, 1995 and 1997. Interview notes are on file with the author.Google Scholar

12. Changhua, Wu, World Resources Institute, personal correspondence with the author, 17 04 1998Google Scholar. David, Biele, Consul, United States Embassy, Beijing, personal correspondence with the author, 28 04 1998.Google Scholar

13. As of 1996, China had 2,223 environmental monitoring stations throughout the country, of which one was national-, 37 were provincial-, 377 were city- and 1,808 were county-level. In total, 35,928 people were engaged in monitoring work, or 42.4% of all people engaged in environmental protection work in China. Zhongguo huanjing nianjian 1996 (China Environmental Yearbook 1996) (Beijing: Zhongguo huanjing nianjian, 1996), pp. 191–92.Google Scholar

14. Of the 200 stations in the national monitoring network in 1996, 135 monitored surface water, 103 urban air pollution, 113 acid rain, 55 noise, 31 radioactivity, and nine ecologically sensitive areas. China Environmental Yearbook 1996, p. 191.Google Scholar

15. In the past, the Ministry of Chemical Industry played a particularly important role in monitoring factories within its sector and developing sector-specific environmental regulations. Under the 1998 administrative reforms, many industrial ministries were abolished. However, several were recreated as bureaus under the State Economic and Trade Commission (SETC), including the former Ministries of Chemical Industry, Metallurgical Industry, Coal Industry and Machine Building. Viven Pik-Kwan, Chan, “Oil chief to head super ministry,” South China Morning Post, 15 03 1998.Google Scholar

16. In 1994, 171, 469 factory workers were responsible for environmental protection, including 48,069 specifically responsible for monitoring. China Environmental Yearbook 1996, p. 270.Google Scholar

17. Abigail R., Jahiel, “Policy implementation through organizational learning: the case of water pollution management in China's reforming socialist system,” (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 1994), pp. 425–26.Google Scholar

18. In most cases ranking is clear. For example, provinces are of higher rank than cities, and ministries of higher rank than bureaus. In some cases, however, rank orders are not so obvious. For example, provinces have the same rank as ministries; thus, a central-level ministry cannot command a province to comply with its policy mandate – it can only recommend it do so. The importance of bureaucratic rank and commensurate status is discussed in Kenneth, Lieberthal and Michel, Oksenberg, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures and Processes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 142–45Google Scholar, and in Lieberthal, Governing China, pp. 159170.Google Scholar

19. Although steps taken to establish an environmental protection organization in the 1970s were minimal, they were not insignificant. At the national level, the Environmental Leadership Small Group, established in May 1974, brought together 20 leaders of various industrial ministries to consider environmental issues. Though this small group met only twice in nine years, it was responsible for the creation of the Environmental Protection Office. At the local level, “three wastes offices” of one or two individuals, and later slightly larger Environmental Protection Offices were gradually established in some Chinese cities and became the precursor of today's institutional apparatus. Zhongguo de huanjing baohu shiye: 1981–1985 (China's Environmental Protection Work: 1981–1985) (Beijing: Zhongguo huanjing kexue chubanshe, 1988), p. 155.Google Scholar

20. For insights into the reasons behind this shift in focus, see Jahiel, , “Policy implementation through organizational learning,” pp. 8286.Google Scholar

21. Interviews 33, 56 and 83, autumn 1991Google Scholar

22. Jahiel, , “The contradictory impact of reform,” pp. 8687.Google Scholar

23. Zhongguo huanjing nianjian 1990 (China Environmental Yearbook 1990) (Beijing: Huanjing kexue chubanshe, 1990), p. 7.Google Scholar

24. Interview 27, summer 1991. Without a strong provincial body, city and county environmental organs lack an advocate for increases in personnel or institutional status; moreover, there is no organization to write environmental laws specific to provincial needs. Sichuan's delay in establishing an independent environmental agency may help explain its poor performance in managing its acid rain problem and enforcing its environmental policies.Google Scholar

25. Lester, Ross, Environmental Policy in China (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 141.Google Scholar

26. This was an important change because monies transferred through other agencies were subject to misappropriation for functions unrelated to environmental protection. Interview 27, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

27. Interview 11, spring 1991, and Interview 18, summer 1991.Google Scholar

28. China Environmental Yearbook 1990, p. 8, and Interviews 31 and 98, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

29. Although NEPA was granted a personnel allotment of 321, it never actually filled all of these positions. In 1994, as a result of a third round of government-wide reforms, discussed below, NEPA reviewed its personnel, and reassigned them. In the process a total of 196 people were retained, 76 people were transferred out of NEPA and the agency tried to fill the vacancies with technically qualified people with advanced degrees. Zhongguo huanjing nianjian 1995 (China Environmental Yearbook 1995) (Beijing: Zhongguo huanjing nianjian, 1995), p. 228.Google Scholar

30. The ten offices were the General Office; the Department of Planning and Finance; the Department of Policies, Laws and Statutes; the Department of Administrative System and Personnel; the Department of Science, Technology and Standards; the Department of Pollution Control; the Department of Supervision and Management; the Department of Nature Conservation; the Department of International Co-operation; and the Department of Publicity and Education. Zhongguo huanjing nianjian 1994 (China Environment Yearbook 1994) (Beijing: Zhongguo huanjing nianjian, 1995), p. 223.Google Scholar

31. Interview 38, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

32. Interview 312, July 1997.Google Scholar

33. During the 1980s several media-specific environmental laws and regulations were promulgated, covering oceans, inland water pollution, air pollution and noise pollution. By the end of the 1980s, China had also developed a series of eight policy implementation mechanisms. For details, see Barbara J., Sinkule and Leonard, Ortolano, Implementing Environmental Policy in China (Westport: Praeger, 1995), pp. 2542.Google Scholar

34. Interviews 39b and 87b, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

35. Interview 42, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

36. Eduard Vermeer, comments at The China Quarterly conference on China and the Environment, 01 1998, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.Google Scholar

37. Jasper, Becker, “All systems go for a green prophet,” South China Morning Post, 18 April 1998.Google Scholar

38. Interview 16, summer 1991.Google Scholar

39. Interview 74, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

40. The report noted that town and village enterprises (TVEs) accounted for 68.3% of all air pollution particulate emissions, 46.5% of all chemical oxygen demand (a measure of organic pollutants in waste water), and 38.6% of solid wastes in China during 1995. “1996 Zhongguo huanjing zhuangkuang gongbao” (“1996 report on China's environmental situation”), Zhongguo huanjing bao (China Environmental Daily), 7 June 1997.Google Scholar

41. Interview 201, 05 1995.Google Scholar

42. Interviews 201, 202, 203, 207, May 1995. In 1995, a senior NEPA official complained that “the fact that well over 50% of county EPBs now have only second-tier status is a huge impediment to environmental work.” Interview 203, 05 1995.Google Scholar

43. A June 1996 report warned that China's environment had further deteriorated during the previous year, with problems spreading from urban to rural areas. See “Report warns of worsening pollution,” China Environment News, 15 07 1996.Google Scholar

44. China Environmental Yearbook 1996, p. 242Google Scholar.

45. See “Guanyu huanjing baohu ruogan wenti de jueding” (“Decision concerning several problems related to environmental protection”), 08 1996.Google Scholar

46. Interview 307, 07 1997.Google Scholar

47. Oi, Jean C., “The role of the local state in China's transitional economy,” p. 1144.Google Scholar

48. Chan Yee, Honet al. “Green body upgraded to ministry,” p. 10Google Scholar. According to sources at SEPA, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (formerly part of the China National Nuclear Corporation and the China Atomic Energy Agency) will now be a bureau associated with SEPA: Biele, personal correspondence with the author, 28 April 1998. The decision to place nuclear safety under SEPA's domain reflects the administration's desire to project nuclear energy as a “clean” source of energy that will contribute to China's efforts to reduce global warming. China Environmental Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1998), p. 3Google Scholar

49. Jahiel, , “The contradictory impact of reform.”Google Scholar

50. For a good discussion of this phenomenon in the Special Economic Zones of Guangdong province see Sincule and Ortolano, Implementing Environmental Policy in China, pp. 161185.Google Scholar

51. Interview 310, 07 1997.Google Scholar

52. In 1995, a senior NEPA official complained that “city, county, and village officials still protect their enterprises and intervene on their behalf against environmental regulations.” He reported further that “… in the last couple of years, city governments have started to use the discharge fees to pay salaries and to build roads and other such things. They act in the short term and don't consider the long term.” Interview 203, 05 1995.Google Scholar

53. Jahiel, , “Organizational learning through policy implementation,” pp. 277334Google Scholar, and Sinkule, and Ortolano, , Implementing Environmental Policy in China, pp. 152–54Google Scholar. Economy draws similar conclusions about the necessity of co-ordinated efforts for another relatively weak institution with environmental responsibilities, the Water Resources Bureau. Elizabeth Economy, Environmental Scarcities, State Capacity, Civil Violence: The Case of China (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1997), p. 47.Google Scholar

54. Interview 31, autumn 1991, and interview 312, July 1997. Also see Sinkule, and Ortolano, , Implementing Environmental Policy in China, p. 37.Google Scholar

55. Some of the enthusiasm for environmental responsibility contracts appears to have waned recently, notably at the provincial level. Nevertheless in some locales – especially at the district and county levels, where economic pulls are most immediate – these contracts continue to play a significant role in boosting EPB or EPO efforts. Interviews 203 and 207, May 1995; Interviews 310, 312 and 317, 07 1997.Google Scholar

56. Interviews 60b, 69, 75, 80, 85, 89, 91 and 98, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

57. Additionally, the People's Bank of China agreed to increase its financial lending for environmental protection technologies and programmes. Economy, Environmental Scarcities, State Capacity, Civil Violence, pp. 4748.Google Scholar

58. Interview 308, 07 1997.Google Scholar

59. The closure of firms is somewhat more complicated than this overview suggests. First, in some cases economic factors and not environmental ones may be primarily responsible for firm closures. Closure of firms may be a response to market failures or may serve to rid localities of unprosperous factories and allow firms to create economies of scale through mergers. Secondly, while 75% of the firms slotted to be shut down have been closed, in some cases firms have reopened, though apparently the problem is easing. Finally, even if the majority of small-scale, heavy polluters that have been closed remain closed, new polluting firms continue to open. Interviews 305 and 312, 07 1997.Google Scholar

60. Interview 56, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

61. Interview 301, 06 1997.Google Scholar

62. Interview 312, 07 1997. While some argue that less prosperous locales should have the right to pursue their economic interests by sacrificing the health of their environment, others, this author among them, contend that a real question of environmental justice is brought to play when environmental sacrifice becomes a dominant means of economic advancement.Google Scholar

63. Interview 306, 07 1997Google Scholar. Ellen, Spitalnik, “The long, arduous path towards effective waste management,” Asia Environmental Business Journal, Vol. III, No. 5 (1997), p. 12.Google Scholar

64. In one city in Sichuan province, the city government had actually institutionalized this tendency by issuing a city ordinance requiring all new chemical plants to be located downstream so as not to pollute the city's water supply. Interview 81, autumn 1991.Google Scholar

65. Interview with the Deputy Director of the Wuhan EPB, International Conference on Environmental Economic Policy, Shandong, PRC, 07 1991.Google Scholar

66. This discussion draws extensively on Li, Kefeng, “Huai: health hazard,” China Environment News, July 1993, p. 45Google Scholar, and Economy, Environmental Scarcities, State Capacity, Civil Violence.Google Scholar

67. Plato, Yip, “Green campaigning takes off,” One Earth (Winter 1996), pp. 1516.Google Scholar

68. Interview 207, 05 1995.Google Scholar

69. Ibid.

70. Hertsgaard, , “Our real China problem,” p. 104.Google Scholar

71. Ibid. p. 104.

72. Kang, Ren, “Huaihe survey finds better water quality,” China Environment News, 15 12 1997, p. 1.Google Scholar

73. Reports indicate that some of the firms shut down secretly re-emerged, even after equipment was seized. “Polluting paper mills die hard,” China Environment News, 15 March 1996, p. 2Google Scholar. Moreover, environmentalists report that actions taken to shut down firms have not achieved a fundamental change for the better. Kang, Ren, “Huaihe survey finds better water quality,” p. 1.Google Scholar

74. Interview 307, 07 1997.Google Scholar

75. Reports exist of county environmental officials actually being beaten up when they have tried to collect discharge fees. Not surprisingly, of the 1,190,000 polluting TVEs conservatively estimated to exist, only 30–40,000 are actually charged fees. Interview 305, 06 1997.Google Scholar

76. Changhua, Wu, correspondence with the author.Google Scholar

77. For further information on the problem of water shortage in China see articles by Nickum, James E. and Changming, Liu elsewhere in this volume.Google Scholar

78. Interview 305, 06 1997.Google Scholar

79. Summary of report entitled “Science and education for a prosperous China,”Google Scholar State Science and Technology Commission, published in Changhua, Wu and Jeffrey, Logan (eds.), China Environment Reporter, Vol. 2, No. 3, (1997). Full report available at Scholar

80. Vaclav Smil has estimated economic losses due to environmental degradation at 10–15% of the annual Chinese GDP. This compares to the average annual growth rate of just under 10%. Vaclav, Smil, Environmental Problems in China: Estimates of Economic Costs (Hawaii: East West Center Special Report 5, 04 1996).Google Scholar

81. Li, Yining quoted in Hertsgarrd, “Our real China problem,” p. 102.Google Scholar

82. Interview 13, 07 1997.Google Scholar

83. From 1992–1997, according to the World Bank, approximately 5% of all World Bank loans to China have been directed toward environmental protection. China receives loans or funds for environmental protection from other development agencies such as the Asia Development Bank and foreign governments as well. See The World Bank homepage, Country Brief China, Scholar

84. Friends of Nature is the largest of these groups. Established in 1994, it had 350 members by 1997; it and the Global Village Environmental Culture Institute of Beijing, established in 1996, emphasize environmental education. Green Earth Volunteers, founded in 1997, organizes environmental activities such as tree-planting in the Engebie Desert. The Beijing Environmental Protection Foundation was established in August 1996 and has since focused its efforts on recycling and on educating women and children about the environment. Interview 310, 07 1997Google Scholar. Elizabeth, Knup, “Environmental NGOs in China: an overview,” in China Environment Series (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1997), pp. 915Google Scholar. Cai, Fang, “Beijing Environmental Foundation's environmental enthusiasts,” China Environment News, April 1998, p. 8.Google Scholar

85. In Beijing, as of July 1997, there were over 20 such groups, and at least ten campus organizations had been established in other parts of the country, some with as many as 400 members. For obvious reasons, all of these groups have taken a non-confrontational stance toward government policy, emphasizing education and volunteerism instead. Nevertheless, their budding activism is indicated by the (unofficial) establishment in March 1996 of The Green Student Forum (lüse daxuesheng luntan). Green Forum acts as a network among college environmental groups, publishing a newsletter and organizing summer “Green Camps” for projects such as protecting the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey and opposing logging in Tibet. Interview 309 with member of Green Forum, 07 1997.Google Scholar

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