Skip to main content

China's War on Air Pollution: Can Existing Governance Structures Support New Ambitions?

  • Christine Wong (a1) and Valerie J. Karplus (a2)

Unprecedented and highly visible degraded air quality in China's urban centres has prompted a step change in central government control efforts in recent years. This “War on Air Pollution” has included a mixture of administrative controls, regulatory clampdowns, economic incentives and public education campaigns. A critical constraint on how policies are designed and implemented is the central government's capacity to access accurate cost information, and monitor, evaluate and enforce the policies at subordinate levels of government. We examine in detail the directives and arrangements that underpin China's “War on Air Pollution” at the provincial level, taking Hebei province as a case study. Located upwind of Beijing, Hebei's heavy industries have been a particular focus of the environmental policies. The current approach, which requires highly specific and costly local actions, yet allocates funds centrally, suffers from misaligned incentives and does not address longstanding weaknesses in local policy monitoring, evaluation and enforcement.

近年来, 中国中心城区的空气污染空前严重, 促使中央政府改变其防控措施。这场反空气污染战涵盖了行政控制、加强监管、经济激励以及公众教育动员等各类措施。设计并执行这些措施面临着一个重要约束, 也即中央政府是否有能力获取准确的减排成本信息, 推动下级政府落实政策, 并对政策落实情况进行监控和评估。我们以河北省为例, 详细分析了省级层面支持 “反空气污染战” 的政策安排。河北省的重工业企业位于北京市的上风方向, 因此是中国环保政策的一个重中之重。现行政策虽然需要地方层面采取成本高昂的具体行动, 但资金的分配仍然由中央控制, 因而导致激励机制失调, 难以解决地方层面长期存在的政策监控、评估和落实问题。

Corresponding author
Email: (corresponding author).
Hide All
Birney, Mayling. 2013. “Decentralization and veiled corruption under China's ‘rule of mandates’.” World Development, doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.01.006.
Buckley, Chris. 2015. “Documentary on air pollution grips China,” New York Times. Accessed 12 April 2017.
CNEMC (China National Environmental Monitoring Center). 2013. “Monthly report of the air quality in 74 cities in China.” Accessed 12 April 2017.
Ding, Xiaojing. 2014. “Seeking help to solve the problem of overcapacity,” Minsheng Weekly 9. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Economy, Elizabeth. 2010. The River Runs Black. The Environmental Challenge to China's Future. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Edin, Maria. 2003. “State capacity and local agent control in China: CCP cadre management from a township perspective.” The China Quarterly 173, 3552.
Fock, Achim, and Wong, Christine. 2008. Financing Rural Development for a Harmonious Society in China: Recent Reforms in Public Finance and Their Prospects. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
Garnaut, Ross. 2014. “China's energy transition: effects on global climate and sustainable development,” The Conversation. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Green, Fergus, and Stern, Nicholas. 2015. “China's ‘new normal’: structural change, better growth, and peak emissions” (Policy Brief June 2015). Accessed 12 April 2017.
Hebei Statistical Yearbook . 2014. Beijing, China: China Statistics Press.
Hornby, Lucy. 2015. “China spells out cost of meeting pollution targets,” Financial Times. Note access by subscription only.
HPG (Hebei Provincial Government). 2013a. “Hebei sheng xuejian meitan xiaofei ji ya jian gangtie deng channeng renwu fenjie fangan” (Plan for Dividing up Targets of Reducing Coal Consumption and Iron and Steel Production Capacity in Hebei).
HPG (Hebei Provincial Government). 2013b. “Hebei sheng daqiwuran fangzhi mubiao zeren shu” (Letter of Target Responsibility for Air Pollution Prevention and Control for Hebei).
ISI Emerging Markets. 2015. CEIC China Premium Database (used via MIT subscription).
Kostka, Genia, and Hobbs, William. 2012. “Local energy efficiency policy implementation in China: bridging the gap between national priorities and local interests.” The China Quarterly 211, 765–85.
Li, Hongbin, and Zhou, Li-An. 2005. “Political turnover and economic performance: the incentive role of personnel control in China.” Journal of Public Economics 89, 1743–62.
Ma, Xiaoying, and Ortolano, Leonard. 2000. Environmental Regulation in China: Institutions, Enforcement, and Compliance. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection). 2012. “Chongdian quyu daqiwuran fangzhi ‘shier wuguihua” (12th Five-Year Plan on Air Pollution Prevention and Control in Key Regions). Accessed 12 April 2017.
MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection). 2013a. “Guanyu zhixing daqiwuran wu tebie paifang xianzhi de gonggao” (MEP Notice on Implementing Special Atmospheric Pollutants Emission Limits).
MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection). 2013b. Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Action Plan for Preventing and Controlling Air Pollution in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and the Surrounding Regions. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Mertha, Andrew C. 2005. “China's centralization: shifting tiao/kuai authority relations.” The China Quarterly 184, 791.
MOF (Ministry of Finance). 2014. Chinese Fiscal Yearbook. Beijing, China: China Public Finance Economics Press.
Naughton, Barry. 2005 China Leadership Monitor, Issue 16. Accessed 12 April 2017.
NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission). 2015. China's Intended National Defined Contribution (INDC).'sINDC-on30thJune2015.pdf. Accessed 12 April 2017.
New Capital Daily Online. 2014. “Jiexi zhi mai jingji zhang bacheng zijin kao shehui touru” (Unpacking the economic cost of curbing air pollution: 80 percent of funds shall come from social financing) Accessed 12 April 2017.
People's Daily . 2013. “Hebei ya jianchan neng bu liu tuilu” (Hebei's Radical Production Capacity Cut). Link is no longer available.
People's Daily . 2014. “Daqiwuran zhili bushi peiqian de maimai” (Air pollution control is not a money losing business). Accessed 12 April 2017.
Shin, Kyoung. 2017. “Neither centre nor local: community-driven experimentalist governance in China.” The China Quarterly, special section “Central–local relations and environmental governance in China.”
State Council (People's Republic of China). 2013. “Daqiwuran fangzhi xingdongjihua” (Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control).
State Council (People's Republic of China). 2014. “Daqiwuran fangzhi xingdongjihua shishiqingkuang kaohe banfa (shixing)” (Measures to Evaluate the Actual Implementation of the Action Plan on Air Pollution Prevention and Control [Provisional]). Accessed 12 April 2017.
Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. 2014. “China declares ‘war against pollution’,” New York Times. Accessed 15 August 2015.
TCBH (Twenty-first Century Business Herald) (2015). “Hebei chutai daqi zhili sannian xingdongfangan sheji jia qiye jianpai” (Hebei introduces three-year atmospheric control programme involving 300 companies to reduce emissions). Accessed 15 August 2015.
Van Rooij, Benjamin. 2006. “Implementation of Chinese environmental law: regular enforcement and political campaigns.” Development and Change 37(1), 5774.
Wei, Lingling, and Davis, Bob 2014. “In China, Beijing fights losing battle to rein in factory production: some Chinese localities stymie efforts to curb industrial overcapacity and pollution.” Wall Street Journal. Accessed 15 April 2017.
Whiting, Susan. 2004. “The cadre evaluation system at the grass roots: the paradox of party rule.” In Naughton, Barry and Yang, Dali L. (eds.), Holding China Together: Diversity and National Integration in the Post-Deng Era. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 101119.
Wong, Christine. 2012. “Performance, Monitoring, and Evaluation in China.” 1–11. Washington, DC: The World Bank. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Wong, Christine P.W. 1991. “Central–local relations in an era of fiscal decline: the paradox of fiscal decentralization in post-Mao China.” The China Quarterly 128, 691715.
Wong, Christine P.W. and Bird, Richard M.. 2008. “China's fiscal system: a work in progress.” In , L.B. and Rawski, T. (eds.), China's Great Transformation: Origins, Mechanism, and Consequences of the Post-Reform Economic Boom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Xingjing News. 2014. “Jiexi zhi mai jingji zhang bacheng zijin kao shehui touru” (Unfolding the economic cost of curbing air pollution: 80 percent of funds shall come from social financing). Xingjing Newspaper. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Xinhuanet. 2014. “Dakongqi zuicha chengshi bei dianming” (The ten cities with the worst air quality named). Accessed 12 April 2017.
Zhang, Le-Yin. 2015. “Rethinking China's Low-Carbon Strategy.” Paulson Institute. Accessed 12 April 2017.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed