China and Neighbourhood, Energy & Environment

The Politics of Environmental Protection Sustainable Development Implementation Gaps in China

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By implementing the “Open Door Policy” since 1978, China has achieved tremendous economic growth and development. China has seen the largest human migration in history, leading to a rise in urban population from 191 million in 1980 to over 650 million in 2010—an increase driven largely by rural-to-urban migration (NBSC, 2011). However, China’s economic growth has come at a heavy cost to the environment. Many scholars acknowledge that the Chinese have brought serious pollution-related health problems along with their rapid urbanisation (Ho and Kueh 2000; Qiu, 2008). For example, outdoor air pollution is associated with more than 400,000 premature deaths per year in China (HEI report, 2004). A 2006 survey (Zhang, 2006) of several thousand suppliers revealed that more than a quarter of municipal drinking water plants and more than half of private plants were not complying with monitoring requirements for water quality. Urbanisation is proceeding rapidly even though nearly half of China’s major cities do not comply with health-based standards for drinking water (SEPA, 2007).

In the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province— which is a major destination for migrant workers —average full-dose coverage for migrant workers with environmentalrelated illness was estimated to be less than 60% (Lin et al, 2007).  Developing countries often lack welldeveloped mechanisms for implementing environmental management programs. China is no exception. Chinese leadership has focused most on ensuring the continuation of economic growth; it has largely ignored the environmental consequences, leaving behind a legacy of pollution (Mol and Carter, 2006). The rule of law in China is still weak (Stern, 2010), and existing environmental laws and regulations are often ignored by local government leaders (Liu and Diamond, 2008). In recent years, the Chinese government has recognized these and other environmental challenges. One of its milestones was the eleventh Five-Year Plan, where Beijing has passed numerous laws and regulations and established an extensive central infrastructure for environmental protection. In keeping with its overall decentralization of authority for fiscal decision-making, the government continues to develop authority over environmental issues away from the centre, delegating enforcement of both central and local government regulations to local officials. In some cases, local governments have achieved remarkable results, but in most cases, environmental protection has continued to deteriorate. This paper attempts to answer how sustainable development implementation works in China and assesses the shortcomings of China’s approach. It focuses on the meaning of sustainable development and explores the relationship between bureaucracy and business industry in the field of sustainable development in China. This essay mainly focuses on the political side of the issue, rather than the legal aspect, although I consider that they are equally important.


Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 4


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