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Reflections on China's Campaign-Style Environmental Governance and the Way Forward

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Foreword from the editors:

While studies from outside China have largely considered political campaigns as a slippery slope away from the authority of the law, it has also been recognized that campaigns can make up for insufficiencies when regular policies fail, especially under conditions when some tasks (like fighting air pollution) are incompatible with other policy goals (like reaching numerical targets of GDP growth). To reexamine the current domestic Chinese discourse on this question, Prof. Feng Jia’s essay summarizes a number of Chinese academic articles that discuss environmental governance between “campaign-style” (运动式治理) and “routine” (常态治理) approaches. His article gives fascinating insights into the imperatives and conundrums that Chinese local governments face today. It emerges quite clearly that the steering of political campaigns is difficult and has significant costs. In China’s political systems this often means that local governments receive blame even when they do what is asked of them: when they close polluting sites, the ensuing anger is diverted away from the central government’s campaign itself and the local administrators’ actions are subsequently criticized for being indiscriminate or working with a “broad-brush” (一刀切). Similarly, depending on sudden changes in the overarching political or economic context, comparable rhetoric might be used to communicate down the hierarchy that the strict imperatives of a given campaign are fizzling out. The text also shows that Chinese legal scholars currently do not work with the assumption that political campaigns as a governance tool could somehow disappear completely. Instead the review article indicates that commentators focus on arguments and approaches that help to delineate precise topical areas which can be exempted from political campaigns in order to broaden the scope of rules-based governance. Interestingly, the uncertainty about looming political campaigns also creates a backdrop to incentivize polluters to voluntarily subject themselves to stricter sets of rules. Mechanisms such as “white/positive lists” that certify a high degree of compliance with environmental standards can promise exemption from the next campaign.

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Heinrich Boell Stiftung Beijing Representative Office
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