Spring 2014

Environmental Governance in China: State Control to Crisis Management

Elizabeth Economy

After three decades of rapid economic growth, environmental degradation is now one of the most significant issues facing the Chinese government. The country's air, water, and land are all heavily polluted. Despite a number of environmental protection initiatives, both at the national and local levels, China ranks poorly when compared with other emerging nations. Formal government institutions have failed to address adequately the people's concerns. Beijing's system of decentralized authoritarianism lacks the political processes and incentives needed to implement meaningful national reform and to encourage local governments and polluting factories to enforce laws and regulations. The Chinese government now faces growing pressure from civil society, as NGOs, Internet activism, and protests compel the government to proactively address environmental issues. Beijing would do well to increase engagement between the government and its citizens, rather than relying on its current crisis management style of environmental governance.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her publications include By All Means Necessary: How China's Resource Quest is Changing the World (with Michael Levi, 2014), The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future (2nd ed., 2010), and China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects (edited with Michel Oksenberg, 1999).

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