Environmental Issues and Policy Priorities in China: A Content Analysis of Government Documents

By Huang, Xibing; Zhao, Dingtao et al. | China: An International Journal, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Environmental Issues and Policy Priorities in China: A Content Analysis of Government Documents


Huang, Xibing, Zhao, Dingtao, Brown, Colin G., Wu, Yanrui, Waldron, Scott A., China: An International Journal


The economic success generated by China's rapid growth has been soured by the accompanying environmental deterioration. Serious environmental problems faced by China include water and air pollution, garbage accumulation, biodiversity losses, deforestation, soil erosion, grassland degradation, salinisation, disappearing wetlands and increasing frequency of human-induced natural disasters. (1) The substantial, complex and pressing nature of environmental issues in China is reflected in statements from various domestic and international agencies. China's State Council argues that "a lot of environmental problems that have haunted developed countries in different phases of their 100-year-long industrialisation are appearing at the same time in China". (2) The World Bank estimated that China's economic losses due to environmental degradation amounted to eight per cent of the country's GDP. (3) In September 2006, the State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA) and the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS) jointly released the first green GDP report. The report indicated that environmental pollution cost China 511.8 billion yuan (USD64 billion) in economic losses, accounting for 3.05 per cent of the country's GDP in 2004. (4) Even though the cost was vastly underestimated, the report still shocked many government officials. On 28 January 2010, Yale University and Columbia University released the 2010 Environmental Performance Index at the World Economic Forum. China ranked 121st out of 163 countries on the list. (5)

Despite China's increasingly vigorous efforts to curb pollution over the past several decades, it has not been successful in preventing overall deterioration of environmental quality. As the most populous and fourth largest country by area in the world, China exerts a significant impact on the global environment as its environmental problems spill over to other counties through globalisation. (6) Thus, preventing China's environment from further deterioration through designing and implementing more effective environmental polices is of paramount importance for both China and the world.

There is rich literature analysing China's environmental policies and regulations. Some scholars have examined the status, characteristics and evolution of China's policies on environmental protection. (7) Other scholars have focussed on the causes of unsatisfactory environmental outcomes. (8) While there is significant and growing literature on China's environmental problems and policies, little attention has been paid to the policy priorities that the Chinese government has placed on different environmental issues over time. Moreover, most of these studies focus on environmental legislation of the central government and pay little attention to the policy implementation of the local governments. Local governments are primarily responsible for policy implementation. Environmental laws and policies formulated by the central government are implemented by local governments through a series of specific measures and programmes. In this process, the so-called "formal document" (guifanxing wenjian) serves as an important channel in China through which policy information is transmitted downwards from the central to local governments. Hence, an analysis of government documents related to environmental protection provides an indication of the environmental issues taken into consideration by the central government for implementation by local governments in China.

The limited capacity of the political system, combined with the plethora and scope of environmental problems, mean that not all problems receive the same level of policy attention. (9) Over time, some issues are prioritised and actively pursued while others receive little attention, and many are seldom or never mentioned. Identifying which environmental issues have been accorded high or low priority is a major objective of this article and is investigated through a content analysis of China's government documents on environmental protection over the 1999 to 2008 period. …

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