On the Evolution on Chinese Environmental Law and Governance
10 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2019
Date Written: October 13, 2019
In 1997, William Alford and Yuanyuan Shen published an article entitled Limits of Law in Addressing China’s Environmental Dilemma (“Limits of Law”) in Stanford Environmental Law Review. Alford and Shen wrote this article in the early to mid-1990s at a time of rapid, yet still relatively newfound, legal construction in China. They observed that “the Chinese state has increasingly turned to public, positive law to address important concerns,” as if the development were still somewhat of a surprise. The chaos and lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution, once praiseworthy to some, had given away to active and energetic efforts to experiment with all manner of governance reforms, including the reconstruction of a comprehensive legal system. But, as the title of the Alford/Shen article suggested, these efforts at rebuilding law faced strong political, economic, social and legal headwinds that limited the usefulness of law in achieving environmental goals.
Over the last decade or so, China has dramatically increased the political priority of a particular vision of sustainable development (what official Party rhetoric has called “the construction of ecological civilization” 生态文明建设). But China’s particular approach to achieving “eco-civilization” remains inadequately understood. Eco-civilization reforms are state-led, technocratic, and focused on “top-down design” (顶层设计). At the same time, reforms have incorporated transparency, public participation, and market-based tools to varying (but in most respects still limited) degrees. These reforms have also emerged so quickly and in such volume that scholars and researchers have struggled to determine their actual performance in practice.
This brief essay identifies the reform activities that have accompanied the eco-civilization push and identifies issues raised by the direction of Chinese environmental reform.
Keywords: China, environment, environmental regulation, rule of law, legal reform
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