The New, Green, Urbanization in China: Between Authoritarian Environmentalism and Decentralization
The New, Green, Urbanization in China: Between Authoritarian Environmentalism and Decentralization
Geoffrey C. Chen 0 1
Charles Lees 0 1
Geoffrey C. Chen 0 1
0 College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University , Bedford Park , Australia
1 Department of China Studies, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University , Suzhou , People's Republic of China
Orthodox Western environmental practice and its associated discourse posits a positive causal link between levels of participation and effective environmental governance and regards participatory practices as a normatively desirable element in the building of a more sustainable society. However, recent discussions around theories of authoritarian environmentalism have challenged some basic assumptions of orthodox environmentalism. However, these discussions still lack sufficient discussion of real-world policy making and implementation and this article addresses that gap by exploring China's policy of green urbanization, deemed a top priority by Chinese policy elites. We argue that the shifting strategies of governance associated with green urbanization are evidence of the emergence of a distinct paradigm of authoritarian environmentalism, characterized by a re-centralization of state power and a reduction of local autonomy, in environmental policy making in China.
China; Environmentalism; Urbanization; Sustainable infrastructure
The rise of Western environmentalism coincided with the growth of the anti-nuclear
movement, the anti-war movement, and other emancipatory strands of state-social
conflict in Western societies. What is now the orthodox environmental political
discourse and practice emerged from this congruence and posits a positive causal link
between participation and effective environmental governance as well as regarding
participatory practices as a normatively desirable element in the building of a more
sustainable society. However, recent discussions around theories of authoritarian
(Moore 2014; Beeson 2010, 2016)
have challenged these
assumptions at the same time as commentators have begun to focus on concerns about the
potential chaos and security threats that may arise from acute environmental
(Hartmann 2010; Detraz 2011; Nyman 2018)
Given increasing doubts about the orthodox model of environmental governance
Howes et al. 2017
), researchers’ discussions have turned to China
as a possible alternative non-participatory model of environmental policy-making
(Gilley 2012; Mol 2015)
. However, these discussions still lack sufficient discussion
of actual real-world policy making and implementation. This article addresses that
gap by exploring the policy of ‘green urbanization’, which has been deemed a top
priority by Chinese policy elites, to understand authoritarian environmentalism as a
possible alternative path to addressing China’s growing environmental emergency.
The emergence of China as a major player in the politics of climate change has
reawakened academic interest in non-democratic approaches to environmentalism
as an alternative environmental policy model. By-and-large this scholarship has
stopped short of outright advocacy of authoritarian environmentalism but it has
breathed new life into the unresolved academic debate, dating back to the late 1970s,
which pitted market liberalism against authoritarian command economies.1 These
debates have re-emerged because of the limited progress made by orthodox Western
approaches as well as China’s growing influence in global climate politics.
Authoritarian environmentalism is the antithesis of emancipatory, decentralized
b, 4–5): tackling the environmental emergency using a
non-participatory and top-down mode of governance. This approach is documented
in Wainwright and Mann’s ‘Climate Mao’ (2013, 9–10), which conceives the
Chinese state as an alternative to a neoliberal capitalist bloc led by the USA, and with
the potential to ‘achieve political feats unimaginable in liberal democracy’.
Similarly, Bigger (2012) argues that centralized state responses may be needed to address
the fragmented state of global carbon governance. However, most of the new
discussions around authoritarian environmentalism tend to portray China as a fixed, single
entity and fail to understand the changing nature of environmental policy model(s)
within China’s authoritarian system
(Shen and Xie 2017)
. These debates have not
1 For further discussion and debate of authoritarian environmentalism, see, for instance,
Doherty and De Geus (1996
Lafferty and Meadowcroft (1996)
Shearman and Smith (2008)
, Ophuls (1977, 2011),
, 23–29) and Chen (2016, 223–245).
taken into account the shift and evolution of the institutions and practices of policy
making in China. By contrast, through our case study of green urbanization and the
related policy initiatives, this article aims to understand the changing institutional
configurations that have emerged over the last decade and, in doing so, enhance
the empirical basis of what still remains primarily an intertextual and theoretically
Our research questions are as follows:
1. What are the institutions and policy instruments used by policy elites in China to
implement their policy of ‘green urbanization’?
2. To what extent is the relevance and utility of the concept of Authoritarian
Environmentalism capable of analyzing the mode of governance in this policy area?
We use the concept of environmental authoritarianism as a theoretical lens to
focus on these questions. Using the policy area of green urbanisation as a case study,
we seek to grasp a more comprehensive understanding of the trajectory of China’s
recent environmental policy development. The reason for selecting this policy area
for analysis is that empirically, green urbanization has become a high salience
political agenda for policy elites
(Zhang 2015, 163–164; Xinhua News Agency 2017)
The policy document Opinions on Accelerating the Construction of Ecological
Civilization (Guanyu jiakuai tuijin shengtai wenming jianshe de yijian, 关于加快推进
生态文明建设的意见) co-introduced by the Party and the State Council,
emphasizes the relationship between China’s environmental carrying capacity and the need
for coordinated development. This indicates an intellectual shift towards a political
economy that eschews high consumption, high emissions, high expansion and
inefficient output, and which reflects Chinese policy elites’ awareness of the urgency
of the climate issue. But in recognizing the urgency of the issue, we also see a new
emphasis on environmental authoritarianism.
The rest of the article is structured as follows. Next, we assess the debate around
non-democratic approaches to environmental policy that have emerged in the recent
literature. In section three, we focus on green urbanization in China, examining how
China’s top-down approach has worked in practice. In particular, we look at the
trade-off between notions of sustainability and equality in the policy design of green
urbanization. We seek to identify the practical challenges and the policy shifts, as
well as the thinking behind them that drove the implementation of green
urbanization initiatives. In section four, we discuss our findings, and argue that the
emerging strategies of governance associated with green urbanization can be characterised
as part of the emerging paradigm of authoritarian environmentalism. This mode of
authoritarian environmentalism not only diverges from the global consensus mode
of environmental governance, but is in effect a new mode of policy making that
emphasizes an explicitly result-oriented policy style that seeks to integrate
environmental imperatives into economic policy planning.
1.1 The Paradigm of Participatory Environmental Governance
Much has been written about the importance of widening civil society
participation in environmental politics and policy. In the West, there is now an established
orthodoxy that stretches from radical environmentalists, through mainstream
politicians to business practitioners, in which actors at all levels of governance assumes
a positive link between popular participation and environmental protection
2003; Hobson 2012)
. This orthodoxy was forged in the ongoing debate amongst
academics, activists, and practitioners that dates back to the emergence of eco-politics
in the 1960s and came to global prominence with the presentation of the
Brundtland Report in 1987 (
a). Although the environmentalist orthodoxy
emerged within the New Social Movements, from the mid-1980s onwards it became
increasingly mainstream and unconstrained by social location
. In its purest form, environmental actors have sought a radical,
decentralized, and civil-society focused mode of organization that fundamentally
challenged the capitalist materialism of the established economic system, advocating
and seeking a new way of life (
). This particular strand of
environmentalism was closely associated with the anti-nuclear movements that were
particularly active at the time
and the non-traditional techniques
of mass mobilization associated with them achieved public and political attention
and established the key issues in the wider public discourse in Western democracies
(Price et al. 2014)
. Such movements, rooted in the tradition of emancipation, are
explicitly opposed to hierarchical bureaucracy
. In short, the Green
politics that emerged through the new Social Movements saw defense of the
environment and the extension of citizens’ autonomy as linked concepts with a close,
positive relationship between them.
However, from the 1980s onwards the radical edge of Green politics was
subsumed into the more mainstream discourse of ‘sustainable development’, which has
become the dominant framework for the discussion of international environmental
(Hajer 1995; Huber 2000)
. Such an apparently depoliticized policy paradigm
was in fact highly political in that its more formalized and structured model of
stakeholder participation excluded the informal and often deliberately unstructured
participation practices associated with New Social Movements (
a, b, 2013;
, 696). This shift away from more radical practices of participation
saw a shift from notions of open and deliberative practice to a more constrained
contractual mode of cooperation between the public and private sectors
. Although this more constrained notion of participation downplayed the
radicalism of the New Social Movements it nevertheless still presented a challenge
to existing practices in liberal democratic states. Not only does this conventional
model of environmental governance contain nebulous strands of neo-liberal
thinking but, in its emphasis on stakeholder participation policy paradigms, its
narrative outsources the responsibilities of elected policy makers (who are supposed to be
responsible for dealing with this vexing issue) to mass consumers (Blühdorn 2016)
and eschews the state’s capacity to solve climate problems with large-scale global
solutions. This paradigm embedded in the sustainable development agenda has, for
some, been considered an exhausted or even ‘failed paradigm’ (
Bulkeley et al. 2013
, 260–264). As Blühdorn put it:
This discourse presents consumer-citizens—rather than economic or political
elites—as real center of power, demands that every individual contribute their
bit, and suggests that the sum of individualized consumer choices and small
scale behavior changes (for example, recycling household waste, not printing
every email, using public transport more regularly, changing light bulbs) will
deliver what neither the globalized economy nor the decapacitated state are
ble to achieve (2016
In such paradigmatic decadence, in which the established model of
environmental governance seems to have lost its effectiveness in dealing with climate urgency,
Beeson echoed this argument, stating that ‘many democracies have great difficulty
either overcoming powerful, entrenched domestic interests and generally
following through on policy commitments, no matter how well intentioned they may be’
(Beeson 2017, 3)
. In this context, environmental authoritarianism offers new means
to solve environmental problems on a large scale. In the next section, we focus on
the empirical discussion of emerging non-democratic approaches to environmental
1.2 Authoritarian Environmentalism and the Case of China
Authoritarian environmentalism dates back to the nineteenth century and the
romantic movement’s critique of industrial revolution and the subsequent criticism in the
twentieth Century of the anthropocentric nature of liberal democracy. In their own
Ophuls and Boyan (1992)
to the inherent dilemma faced by contemporary market democratic states when
confronted with the potential measures required to tackle the global environmental
emergency. The core of this dilemma was what they saw as the inevitable
tradeoff between the needs of the planet and individual rights; in this case the right to
unlimitedly exploit the earth’s resources. These writers’ skepticism about the
ability of democratic states to address the environmental emergency led to them being
labelled proponents of authoritarian environmentalism (
particular, authoritarian environmentalism questioned the default principle of market
liberalism that placed economic and political individualism as a priority value. For
instance, Ophuls (1977, 223) pessimistically points out that ‘current political value
and institutions are the products of the age of abnormal abundance now drawing to a
close, so that solutions predicated on scarcity would necessarily conflict with them’.
He believes that, to move toward a more stable environmentally benign society, ‘we
must determine its basic principles and then put them into effect in a planned or a
designed fashion’ (1977, 227). Authoritarian environmentalism generated a lively
academic debate in the 1970s but, as
Dryzek and Dunleavy (2009
, 262–263) later
observed, this academic discussion of authoritarian environmentalism ran into the
sand simply because there had not yet been a substantial example of such a regime
in the real world.
That being said, the criticism of political systems legitimized on the basis of a
priori individualistic freedom and the pursuit of selfish consumerism has
continued and many commentators have attempted to apply the principles of authoritarian
environmentalism to the empirical world, building model nondemocratic approaches
to climate policy. One of the more controversial works in this direction of enquiry
Shearman and Smith’s (2008)
contribution that argues that liberal democracy
itself may be an insurmountable obstacle to tackling the environmental emergency.
For Shearman and Smith, the East Asian model of economic development, with its
emphasis on technocratic management and a more collective ethos, may provide a
more promising way forward than liberal democracy in general and its Anglo-Saxon
variant in particular. Drawing on the earlier work of
also argues for a more active ‘interventionist’ role for the state and for the
reversal of the neo-liberal deregulation of the past 30 years that has failed to mitigate
or compensate for the externalities of economic activity
(Giddens 2011, 96)
recent scholarship has reawakened interest in the potentialities of authoritarian
environmentalism but as
, 24) points out, none of the models proposed
succeed in illustrating exactly how and to what extent the institutional mechanisms
of government ought to be arranged. Moreover, although academic debates accept
the premise of the embedded tendency towards environmental and resource
exploitation under market li
beralism (Eckersley 2004
, 87), authoritarian environmentalism
is still tainted empirically by the experience of the totalitarian dead end and
environmental catastrophe associated with the Soviet and East European model of planned
economy in the twentieth century
(Baker and Jehlička 1998; Foster 2015)
. At the
same time, however, commentators continue to criticize the current environmental
laggards in high-carbon-reliance countries like the US, Canada, and Australia.
The emergence of the Chinese case in this conversation is in many ways
unexpected, given that China is generally considered an environmental laggard and has
been criticized by many researchers as a major cause of global warming
2011; Bulkeley and Newell 2015, 50)
. However, for some scholars, this criticism is
not always justified. For instance,
used the lively academic
discussion around the rise of China as a means of raising the possibility of effective
environmental governance under authoritarian rule. For Beeson, the rise of China is not
only an unprecedented economic phenomenon in empirical terms, but he believes
that it can even be conceived as an alternative environmental policy-making model
due to urgent need to tackle the global environmental emergency. If one accepts that
the environmental emergency has potential existential consequences, then it is
possible to conceive of China’s interventionist state model as a template for
rethinking and perhaps trying to reasonably replicate the same degree of state capacity to
protect human civilization under the threat of global warming
(Beeson 2010, 289)
Beeson invited readers to take a different perspective to the normal critical
position on China, and consider the fact that if the strong political control and one child
policy had not existed in China, the sustainable carrying capacity of our planet could
already have been exceeded.
2 And also to break the locked-in situation to resolve the obstacle resulted from the lobby groups’ long
effort in denying the proposed climate policies in industrial states
(Giddens 2011; Klein 2015)
attempts to extend this argument and build an environmental
policy-making model that does not a priori emphasize the principle of participation.
He defines authoritarian environmentalism as ‘a policy process that is dominated by
a relatively autonomous central state, affording little or no role for social actors or
(Gilley 2012, 288)
. Gilley points out that China’s active state
intervention in environmental policy making can be explained by this theoretical
framework, and the domination of scientific technocrats in managing and controlling
the process conforms to the prototype of authoritarian environmentalism. However,
Gilley remains doubtful that the model is even potentially superior to the orthodox
Western model of participatory environmental policy making. In particular, Gilley
points to the pathologies of administrative decentralization in China: the fact that
managing and coordinating policy across such a large and geographically diverse
territory often leads to a lack of coordination between central and local government
that hinders the central state’s ability to implement effective environmental policies.
Gilley concludes that while the policy elites have been able to generate high levels of
environmental policy output, they have struggled to solve their long-term problems
of implementation deficit
(Gilley 2012, 298; also Economy 2010; Shapiro 2012)
Eaton and Kostka (2014)
also echo these accounts of implementation deficit and
argue that one of the defining problems of environmental policy in Western
democratic states, that of short-termism, also exists in China’s authoritarian system
also Westra 1998, 86)
. These scholars argue that the Chinese Communist Party’s
cadre turnover system means that key officials are often only in situ in a particular
locality for 4 years. As a result, there are limits to the extent to which officials can
cultivate local networks and this tends to scale up into an emphasis on quick but
limited environmental gains. Furthermore,
Eaton and Kostka (2017)
posed an empirical
challenge to an over-optimistic focus on environmental authoritarianism. In a recent
article on the state-led protection of central enterprises, they indicated a
long-standing environmental problem embedded in fragmented authoritarianism: central
stateowned enterprises (SOEs) have long defied environmental laws, and the ‘National
Champions’ rely on their superiority, which constrains the local governments’
capability to enforce environmental regulations. Under the protection of the central
government (that is, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration
Commission, the chief governing body of the central SOEs) and incentivised by industrial
policies introduced by both central and local governments, they became chronic
polluters, and non-compliance with local environmental regulations became the norm
(Eaton and Kostka 2017, 694)
. After all, SOE managers seem to be motivated by
appraisal systems that gauge their commercial performance rather than
environmental compliance. In addition, the absence of stable institutional mechanisms for
environmental governance in China has led many to believe that the state has long been
part of the problem in terms of the shortcomings of environmental governance in
(Economy 2010, 110–117; Lo and Fryxell 2014)
, as Toke indicates:
[T]he modes of environmental governance that are now dominant in China are
slow to respond to these changes … At a local level there is a basic
contradiction between officials that are incentivized for their ability to pursue economic
development and the need to protect the environment (2017, 97).
This also means that there have been variegated responses within the localities in
terms of implementing green development policy, depending on the degree of local
(Lo and Fryxell 2014, 113)
. Such institutional contradictions inherently
skew the outcomes of environmental governance and fuel the failure of the
(Balula and Bina 2015, 119)
. From this perspective, it seems that the
concept of authoritarian environmentalism is problematic in discussing empirical
aspects in China, in which, given the still-insufficient discussion of actual real-world
policy making, it remains ambiguous whether a potential new mode of governance
can emerge. This is also reflected in the research report published by the
Development Research Center of the State Council, which voiced concerns about China’s
fragmented approach to green development policy
(Lv 2015, 11–39)
2 A Top‑Down Mode of ‘New Urbanization’
For 4 years, New Urbanization (Xinxing chengzhenhua, 新型城镇化) has been an
influential phrase noticeable in official media, reflecting its championing by the
current Xi-Li administration. Urbanization in China has long been a policy issue for
the current policy elites. However, this has become a more complex challenge in the
years that preceded them taking power. Rapid environmental degradation, as well as
the uneven distribution of resources accompanied by the change of land conversion
(Gaubatz 1999; Ma 2002)
, has compelled the new leaders to advocate the
introduction of new explicitly ‘green’ policies in the now well-established urbanization
program.3 This new Green Urbanization marks a break from the past in that the design
of the policy emphasizes the possibility of a cohesive, controlling but integrative
institutionalization processes rather than encouraging the autonomy of third parties
in the sector. In this sense, it is very different from the Western orthodoxy of
sustainable development and reflects Chinese elites recognition of the need for top-level
policy making to tackle China’s environmental crisis.
2.1 Crises and Unreconciled Remediation
Official recognition of the environmental problems associated with China’s rapid
development can be seen in the Chinese government’s 5-year guidelines
. The “Twelfth Five-Year Guideline” (Shi er wu guihua, 十二五规划),
introduced in 2010 by the previous Hu-Wen administration, explicitly linked the
issues of large-scale population mobility and environmental challenges and
acknowledged the tension between the imperatives of economic growth and environmental
3 The bureaucratic system of the PRC has long been defined as a model of “Fragmented
Authoritarianism”: the policy-making process in China, as argued by Lieberthal and Lampton (1988, 3) is “disjointed,
protracted, and incremental”, which leads to competition for interests among provinces and key
bureaucracies where policy coordination is difficult to reach. The extensive bargaining politics has therefore
deeply involved in the process of policy implementation among territorial and hierarchical elites
(China Development Research Foundation 2013; Darido et al. 2014)
document focused on the changes and challenges resulting from the early process of
urbanization, particularly in eastern coastal areas. The “‘Twelfth Five-Year
Guideline’ of National Population Development” (Guojia renkou fazhan “shi er wu”
guihua, 国家人口发展“十二五”规划) referred to the associated problem of uneven
population distribution and a large-scale floating population drawn from the
countryside to the cities
(State Council 2012)
. This problem, despite being acknowledged
by Hu-Wen administration, has not been resolved due to the insufficient degree of
social security and provision of public services for China’s increasingly expanding
urban migrants. As Director of the National Development and Reform Commission
(NDRC) Xu Shaoshi observed:
Over 200 million migrant workers and their families have been unable to enjoy
equal access to basic public services of education, employment, health care,
retirement, and affordable housing as urban residents. New structural dual
contradictions within urban areas have emerged, which constrains the positive
effect of urbanization that could have pushed forward domestic demand and
structural upgrading of the economy. There are also potential risks to the
security of the society
The imbalanced distribution of the population and resources was accompanied by
an overload on environmental resources. China’s rapid economic development was
grounded on the unrestricted use of carbon energy, particularly coal, and resulted in
an increasingly obvious negative environmental impact all over the country
Diamond 2005; OECD 2013)
. The unprecedented levels of environmental
degradation were to a large extent linked to the business-as-usual energy structure. By 2010,
China had become the world’s largest energy consumer and its energy consumption
accounted for one-fifth of the world’s consumption (Leggett 2011).
China’s poor environmental record also challenged the central state’s ability to
maintain its high economic performance. Water scarcity, soil contamination, and air
pollution not only created environmental overload
(Liu and Diamond 2005; Kahn
and Yardley 2007)
but also began to exact a monetary cost, estimated to be around
13.5% of GDP in 2005 (Deutsche Welle 2015). In addition, a number of writers have
indicated that ‘environmental mass incidents’ have increased dramatically year by
year after the economic reform
(Shapiro 2012, 131)
. As Wang stated:
The number of legal petitioners has grown astronomically as pollution has
worsened throughout the country and more than 40 new specialized courts or
tribunals dedicated to hearing environmental lawsuits are now hearing cases, many of
them brought by public interest plaintiffs including NGOs, private citizens, and
environmental protection bureaus
(2011; as cited in Shapiro 2012, 128)
The overloading of environmental capacity is now firmly on the political agenda,
attracting the criticism from a number of commentators and policy makers.
Significant warnings raised by both domestic and international media seem to have pushed
China’s political elites into a recognition that a crisis is emerging and that the
current political-economic regime is unsustainable.
2.2 The Partial Return of Centralized Planning
Official recognition of the extent of the crisis was made clear during the National
People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress in 2015, in
which Li Keqiang spoke bluntly at a press conference on the newly released
government report, placing environmental protection and green urbanization at the very
front of the tasks facing the State Council
(BBC 2015; Xinhua News Agency 2015b)
Key policy documents put forward in recent years have developed the notion of the
‘New Urbanization’. In 2014, the State Council released a lengthy policy document
called “The National Guidelines of New Urbanization, 2014–2020” (Guojia xinxing
chengzhenghua guihua, 2014–2020, 国家新型城镇化规划, 2014–2020), with a list
of implementing strategies. In the document, policy makers highlighted urbanization
as an important symbol of national modernization and set a new guiding ideology
for urbanization. It stated, ‘[Chinese] Urbanization has been promoted against the
backdrop of overpopulation, relative shortage of resources, fragile ecological
environment, and uneven regional, urban, and rural development”. To achieve
modernization, the authors of the “National Guidelines of New Urbanization, 2014–2020”
listed several areas for development: from justice, urban and rural coordination,
efficiency planning, environmental and ecological conservation, cultural development,
and government guiding market mechanisms to the reconfirmation of the overall
organization and the principle of control by the central government. Most notably,
the document eschewed any references to Western orthodox principles of diversity
and inclusivity in its proposed urbanization strategy. On the contrary, it proposed
a strategy of ‘top level design’ (Dingceng sheji, 顶层设计), particularly in terms
of the development of ecologically sustaina
ble new towns (Xu 2013
; Noesselt 2017, 350).4 This new policy thinking, which incorporates the
precautionary principle in tackling environmental problems at their source, emphasizes
that in formulating policies, each department must accept higher level institutions,
such as the State Council, to coordinate various departments in the governance
system. For example, in energy governance, the State Council leads the Ministry of
Environment, the National Development and Reform Commission, and provincial
governments to tackle the long-running challenges
(Liu et al. 2013, 145; Chen 2016,
The focus on top-down planning and steering was intended to “coordinately
promote stable economic growth and structural optimization”
(Xinhua News Agency
. With its clear emphasis on the key role of the scientific and technocratic
bureaucracy, the document rejects the orthodox template put forward by the World
Bank and other international organizations, which prioritized an open and
participatory process. By contrast, the Chinese document indicated a concerted move in the
opposite direction, albeit for domestic reasons: to address the negative consequences
of administrative decentralization
(Shin 2013; Sorace and Hurst 2016)
4 These initiatives seem contrary to the joint research report “Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive
and Sustainable Urbanization”, coauthored by the State Department and the World Bank in 2014, which
advocated an open and inclusive urbanization approach.
Policy documents from recent years indicate that the Xi-Li administration’s
approach to dealing with sensitive environmental issues is to look to enhance the
technocratic bureaucracy’s steering capacity. One of the most significant of these
documents was the revised Environmental Protection Act 2014, which came into
force in 2015. The Act proposes a number of new institutional arrangements and
policy instruments that are designed to allow the central state to further strengthen
its ability to steer policy formulation and implementation.5 For instance, a new
environmental pollution warning mechanism deploys the ‘precautionary principle’6 to
allow closer monitoring of local government (Article 47) and also incentivize local
officials to conform to and act in the interests of central government’s environmental
objectives. The document also proposed a tougher approach to enforcing
accountability by aligning performance to officials’ promotion prospects, a potential
sanction that had previously been absent
. Other potential sanctions and
rewards were now to be exercised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, such
as the right/power to detain the property of enterprises that have breached the
environmental regulations and the right/power to sanction illegal enterprises (including
sanctions in conjunction with other administrative departments such as financial
and/or land use approval). The revised law also added a centralized regulatory
intervention mechanism to address and sanction non-compliant behavior of both local
government and enterprises, as well as to reduce rent-seeking behavior by business
and government officials.
One new measure introduced by central government since Xi Jinping came to
power is the establishment of ‘environmental inspection teams’ (huanjing jiancha
xiaozu, 环境监察小组). As with all similar inspection teams (xunshizu, 巡视组)
dispatched by the Party-State, environmental inspection teams contain retired
ministry officials and officials from the Organization Department of the Chinese
Communist Party who carry out tours of provincial administrative units’ environmental
monitoring facilities. This top-down mode of inspection was strongly advocated and
subsequently institutionalized in 2015 by the Deepening Reform Leadership Small
(Naughton 2017, 5–6)
. Xi Jinping’s 2017 report to the nineteenth party
congress proposed more formal mechanisms of centralized monitoring by
establishing natural resources asset management and natural ecological regulatory agencies.
The logic of establishing these mechanisms was made explicit by Yang Weimin, the
Deputy Director of the Central Finance Leading Group Office, who pointed out:
In the past, almost all the departments involved in natural resource
management have set up their own protected areas. There are a large number of these
areas, covering a large amount of territory, but the regulation is not in place
or is not working. In addition, a piece of land may be allocated by different
departments for different purposes. We must have a unified, complete spatial
5 For many years, environmental legislation in China has often been considered positive, but due to the
weak law enforcement, environmental governance has been severely criticized.
6 See, for instance,
O’Riordan and Cameron (1994
O’Riordan and Jordan (1995
) for discussions of
the concept in practice.
planning process at the heart of the national governance system
Yang Weimin’s words articulate a mode of governance that is different from the
established de-centered paradigm of environmentalism advocated in the West. On
the contrary, it relies on top-down governance mechanisms carried out by the party
and state apparatus. It prioritises outcomes over process in a fashion that is
antithetical to the orthodox Western practices.
2.3 Green Urbanization and Sustainable Infrastructure
One of the most significant keys for the delivery of the Chinese central government’s
objectives is the restructuring of China’s energy sector, in particular its reliance on
carbon-based energy. It is striking that the current Xi-Li administration appears
to now be willing to confront carbon interests and to exercise top-down decision
power to enforce policy implementation
(Green and Stern 2016)
. Specifically, the
Xi-Li administration talks about seeking a new path in which ‘energy waste could
genuinely be reduced and at the same time (we) keep the growth of economic
(Xu 2014a; NEA, DRCSC and Ministry of Land and Resources of
the PRC 2016)
. It is proposed that this new path should include a series of new,
strict, enforcement measures over the industry with the aim to mitigate large
industrial greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a variety of policy instruments such as
energy-saving assessment reviews, finance and land use pre-assessments, and other
‘gateway’ controls for steel, nonferrous metals, building materials,
petrochemical, and chemical industry products, requiring these business actors to implement
environmental impact assessments before being given appropriate administrative
approval for projects.7 In addition, the new Act proposed tackling air quality issues,
for instance over the prevalence of particulate matter in the atmosphere. In 2013, the
‘Action Plan for Atmospheric Pollution Prevention’ (Daqi wuran fangzhi xingdong
jihua, 大气污染防治行动计划) jointly issued by the NDRC and the Ministry of
Environmental Protection, introduced new measures to enforce implementation and
subject local governments to accept central government assessment of their
performance. These measures were to be coordinated centrally
(Johnson et al. 2017, 116)
On the evidence so far from the early years of the Xi-Li administration, we can
observe a re-centralization of state power and a reduction of autonomy further down
the administrative chain
(Naughton 2017; Van Rooij et al. 2017)
. As mentioned
earlier, central government implemented a cap on coal electricity (Meidian zongliang
7 Although it seems too early to conclude ultimately whether China will really decouple the use of fossil
fuels and economy growth, data indicates that, over the past two years, China’s overall coal use has been
reduced: Economic growth in 2014 remained at the same level as the previous year, but the use of coal
in 2014, however, fell by 1.6% (Macauley 2015). Perhaps what is more surprising is that in 2014 China’s
carbon emissions also fell for the first time after increasing sharply during the reform and opening up
process. According to an estimation by the International Energy Agency, China’s annual carbon
emissions fell by 2% in 2014 alone
8 This includes the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Environmental
Protection, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Housing and
Urban Affairs, National Bureau of Energy, and so on.
guanzhi, 煤电总量管制)9 and this was augmented by a new requirement,
introduced in 2014, for key enterprises10 to submit extensive details of their estimated
greenhouse gas emissions
(State Council 2014b)
. As part of this initiative, central
government introduced standardized guidelines for the accounting and reporting of
greenhouse gas emissions to preempt problems of asymmetric information in the
Attempts to standardize the reporting of environmental data where a necessary
precursor to central government issuing targets for reducing greenhouse emissions.
The Action Plan set out the intention to eliminate at least 150 GW generated by
coal-fired electric plants by 2015, followed by the phase out of another 350 GW by
(China Daily 2014)
. These targets represent a decisive break with the past,
given that since the Mao era the coal industry has been privileged in China’s plans
for endogenous technological development, self-sufficiency, and energy security
(Chen and Lees 2016, 579–581; Qi et al. 2016)
. China’s domestic environmental
crisis has compelled the current leadership to restructure its energy sector. At the same
time, China has made the link between its domestic crisis and the global
environmental emergency and has taken on a more active global leadership role
and Tan 2014)
, often in co-operation with the United States
Elgström 2013, 1373)
. Despite the interregnum of the Trump Presidency, which has put
it on hold for the time being, this nascent Sino-American co-operation reduced the
number of institutional veto players and focused directly on the urgency of tackling
global climate change.
2.4 Social Justice and the Need for the Efficient Execution of Policy
Beyond discussion of technical measures to reduce greenhouse emissions, any
assessment of the Action Plan must also engage with issues of social justice and
fairness. As already discussed, China’s rapid economic growth and unplanned
urbanization highlighted issues of geographical justice, including the unequal
treatment of rural Chinese compared with their urban counterparts. The urbanization
policy prescriptions provided by the Xi-Li administration seem to indicate a shift
towards reforms focused on alleviating the issue of unequal rights at the local level.
This shift was reflected in the 2014 policy document ‘State Council’s Opinion on
Further Reform of the Household Registration System’ (Guowuyuan guanyu jinyibu
tuijin huji zhidu gaige de yijian, 国务院关于进一步推进户籍制度改革的意见),
which proposed a ‘a unified urban and rural household registration system’ designed
9 The plan of implementing the cap on coal electricity was written in the “Strategies for Energy
Industry to Strengthen Air Pollution Control”
(Nengyuan hangye jiaqiang daqiwuran fangzhigongzuo fangan,
能源行业加强大气污染防治工作方案. 2014a. No. 506)
and the “Energy-Saving and Emission
Reduction: The Action Plan for Upgrading and Transforming the Coal-Fired Power Industry for 2014–2020”
(Meidian jieneng jianpai shengji yu gaizao xingdong jihua, 2014–2020, 煤电节能减排与改造行动计
划, 2014–2020. 2014b. No. 2093).
10 This refers to enterprises that reached 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2010 or those corporations
whose total energy consumption reached 5000 tons of standard coal in 2010.
to normalize and standardize urban immigrants’ status.11 The measures included an
attempt to implement an effective residence permit (Juzhuzheng, 居住证) system
and accelerate the construction and sharing of a national population information
(State Council 2014a)
. Once again, we see explicitly top-down measures
introduced to overcome the implementation gap caused by decentralization and, in
doing so, mitigate the persistent gap in welfare between rural settlers in cities and
established urban citizens, particularly in terms of the inequality in access to
education, employment, and health benefits.12
In addition to the reform of urban and rural household registration restrictions,
the Xi-Li Administration has also moved to centralize the coordination of social
security policies themselves. For instance, central government has sought to
introduce a ‘unified pension scheme for the rural and urban residents’
as a ‘Comprehensive National Pilot Program of New Urbanization’ (Guojia
xinxing chengzhenhua zonghe shidian fangan, 国家新兴城镇化综合试点方案), which
designated 64 new administrative units to implement the pilot policy, which was
to commence in the coastal provinces and to be adapted to local conditions. The
preliminary outcomes of the pilot projects are due in 2017. From 2018 until 2020,
central government intends to synthesize the experience of these local pilots and to
‘implant’ similar institutional arrangements throughout the entire territory of China
(People’s Daily 2015). The regional experiment that is deemed most successful will
eventually be rolled-out at the national level as an environmental policy template,
so that the project of new urbanization can then be implanted according to local
conditions. This cycle of policy development further enhances central government’s
Over the last decade or more China’s developmental path has moved away from
a previously single-minded emphasis on economic growth and begun to address the
environmental consequences of that growth process. Where these policies address
issues of urbanization in China, this shift has also begun to encompass issues of
social justice and fairness in terms of the disparity between the rights and welfare
enjoyed by rural and urban citizens. What has also become evident from the early
years of the Xi-Li administration, however, is that the central state has begun to
concentrate more steering capacity to itself, to overcome an increasingly irresistible
sense of crisis, including a growing environmental consciousness among Chinese
citizens. The discussion around urbanization or environmental protection is not a
new one, but the Xi-Li administration’s reforms demonstrate the level of urgency
that is now acknowledged by Chinese elites. In short, the cognitive problem
identified by the policy elites is not that there has been too much concentration of power,
11 This policy is an attempt to eliminate the household distinction of agricultural and non-hukou aliens
and to promote a unified system for the registration of residents, thereby placing all public services into
a single information system to obtain control. Here, the town identity number is a unique identifier,
enabling the central government to garner political control by more or less dispelling information
Yu and Ding (2008)
have conducted an empirical analysis of the unfair treatment of migrant workers,
which has long been experienced because of the lack of household status in cities, pointing out the
structural discrimination of the existing regime.
but rather that power is too scattered and fragmented in this policy area. All in all,
the Xi-Li leadership seems to be focused more intently on the efficient execution of
Our analysis in this article indicates that, at the level of institutional strategies, the
policy of the ‘new’ green urbanization and the strategy for its effective
implementation indicates an emerging paradigm of authoritarian environmentalism, in which we
can observe a break by the Xi-Li administration in its approach to centralization as a
tool of policy. In other words, the Xi-Li’s more explicitly top-down mode of
governance has been deployed to manage and reconcile the often competing imperatives
of development and environmental protection. We find that, in terms of operating
practices, there is no evidence of the orthodox participatory model that originated
from the emancipatory tradition of environmentalism in the Western context. In the
face of the growing environmental crisis in China, the Chinese Communist Party
did not seek to emulate the orthodox environmental governance paradigm
associated with notions of sustainable development. This means that it did not delegate
decision-making power to the lower tiers of government or encourage and cultivate
dialogue with civil society. On the contrary, in implementing its policy of the New
Urbanization, Chinese central government has sought to implement its own policy
instruments by re-centralizing policy making and enforcement. In particular, central
government has attempted to overcome the loss of steering capacity associated with
decentralization and standardize the content and implementation of urban policies.
Recent policy documents indicate that Xi-Li administration intends to strengthen
and extend the hierarchical command and control mechanisms and consolidate the
powers of environmental and urban planning at the top of the chain of command.
As noted the central state’s new emphasis on centralized steering capacity
represents a break from the orthodoxy of sustainable development and assumed the
role of the ‘interventionist
state’ (Giddens 2011
, 96; as cited in
We identify this as evidence of an emerging authoritarian environmentalism that
aims to limit the number of potential veto players in the policy process. The new
green urbanization process promoted by the Xi-Li administration aims to
consolidate the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to steer and control the process of
modernization. The emphasis on outcomes over process, including a partial return to a
centralized planning mode, reverses the trend towards what many China scholars
have called fragmented authoritarianism
(Lieberthal and Oksenberg 1988; Lampton
. It remains to be seen whether this recentralization of power and
administrative discretion will be extended to other policy areas in China.
Geoffrey Chun‑fung Chen is Lecturer in the Department of China Studies at Xi’an
Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Prior to this, he worked at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the German Institute
of Global and Area Studies. He gained his PhD from the University of Bath. Geoffrey’s research focuses
primarily on political economy, energy governance, and environmental politics. Specifically, he is
interested in researching how China’s public sector was reformed and how climate technology solutions are
promoted. Geoffrey is the author of Governing Sustainable Energies in China (Palgrave Macmillan,
2016). He is currently researching on a project about the political economy of China’s climate technology
Charles Lees is Dean (People and Resources) in the College of Business, Government, and Law at
Flinders University. Prior to this, he worked at the University of Bath, University of Sheffield, and the
University of Sussex. He writes on comparative party systems, coalition government, environmental
politics, and policy, and has contributed to debates on the methodology of single-country studies. He has
provided research and advice for the Centre for American Progress, Australian Labor Party, Green Party
of Aotearoa New Zealand, the UK House of Lords and the Scottish Executive, amongst others. He holds
or has held visiting fellowships at the University of California San Diego, the Australian National
University, the University of Sydney, Cardiff University, the University of Birmingham, and the University
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