Advocating Environmental Interests in China

AuthorWanxin Li
Published date01 September 2012
Date01 September 2012
Subject MatterArticles
AAS460079.indd 460079AAS446S10.1177/0095399
712460079Administration & SocietyLi
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Administration & Society
44(6S) 26 –42
© 2012 SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0095399712460079
Interests in China
Wanxin Li1,2
This article analyzes two cases of environmental advocacy initiatives in China:
institutionalizing environmental information transparency and sanctioning
environmental violations. Both initiatives were aimed at achieving policy
change at a national or regional level. Although the study shows evidence
of advocacy coalitions and pressure groups in the policy process, neither
the coalitions nor the groups had a set of core beliefs that enabled them
to persist over time. Because they were restricted to limited advocacy on
particular concerns, they proved to be ephemeral and disappeared after the
issues had been addressed. The cases conform to the pattern of decision
making in an authoritarian regime where policy initiatives tend to emanate
from the government rather than from the public.
environmental governance, advocacy, political space, environmental interests,
Environmental challenges embody the features of wicked problems described
by Weber and Khademian (2008). First, they are unstructured: Causes and
effects are extremely difficult to identify. They are open to varied interpreta-
tions, and a consensus about their treatment becomes hard to reach. Second,
1City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR, People’s Republic of China
2Graduate School at Shenzhen, Tsinghua University, People’s Republic of China
Corresponding Author:
Wanxin Li, Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong, 83
Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR, People’s Republic of China

they comprise overlapping and interconnected subsets of issues that cut across
multiple policy domains and levels of government. Last, wicked problems are
relentless and unlikely ever to be solved despite the best of intentions and the
extent of the resources available (Weber & Khademian, 2008). Environmental
policy making seen in this context is a fluid activity—The issues are difficult
to define, stakeholders are diverse, and the processes for making sense of the
issues and searching for solutions are dynamic.
The policy advocacy coalition framework (ACF) has been developed to
explain policy-making processes and policy change and learning by examin-
ing interactive structures among major players who express their interests,
beliefs, and actions in certain socioeconomic contexts (Weible, Sabatier, &
McQueen, 2009). Scholars have adopted the ACF for studying various issues
related to environmental policy making (van Overveld, Hermans, & Verliefde,
2010), natural resource and ecological policies (Sotirov & Memmler, 2012;
Weible, Pattison, & Sabatier, 2010), climate change (Bortree, Ahern, Dou, &
Smith, 2011), and environmental justice (Kreger, Sargent, Arons, Standish, &
Brindis, 2011). They have pointed out the difficulties and importance of
obtaining knowledge of the goals and perceptions of numerous stakeholders
in a multitude of scientific, political, economic, and social settings over a
long period of time (Sabatier, 2007). Environmental governance, similarly,
takes places in a wide context in which stakeholders, including government
agencies, civil society, and transnational organizations, seek to articulate
their interests through formal and informal means, to manage and conserve
natural resources, to control pollution, and to resolve conflicts (W. Li, 2006).
This article aims to advance our understanding of the major actors, their
claims, and their strategies for advocating environmental interests in China
where special interest politics is not salient and where core beliefs are being
constantly redefined alongside rapid social transformation (Pan, 2008). It is
not always evident who the environmental stakeholders in China are, espe-
cially when pressure groups are almost invisible unless directly faced with a
contentious issue. Instead of focusing on established environmental organi-
zations, therefore, I choose to examine two initiatives, namely, institutional-
izing environmental information transparency nationally and sanctioning
industrial environmental violations regionally. Both initiatives are aimed at
balancing environmental interests with other competing goals such as eco-
nomic growth. By analyzing the Chinese case, the article contributes to the
literature on policy-making processes and ACF originally developed in a
western country context where pluralism and organized special interest advo-
cacy are a regular form of political life.1
The next section reviews the changes in the Chinese society that demand
the articulation of environmental interests. The sections “Institutionalizing

Administration & Society 44(6S)
Environmental Information Disclosure in China” and “Sanctioning Industrial
Environmental Violations in Chongqing” analyze two cases where govern-
ment and intellectual elites formed coalitions to advocate environmental
policy change from within the system. Based on the case analysis, the article
discusses the two major motivations for advocating environmental interests
in China—value-based advocacy for systematic change and balancing inter-
ests in government decision making. The conclusion seeks to place the dis-
cussion in the article in the broader context of the literature on the ACF as
well as changes in administration and society in China.
Social Changes and the Articulation of
Environmental Interests
Even though, since 1972, China has followed international practice and
enacted environmental laws and regulations, there has been concern about
local implementation and motivating local authorities to prioritize environ-
mental protection over other considerations. With industrialization, air and
water pollution have drawn attention from experts and the top leadership in
China. Since 1977, higher education institutions have launched study pro-
grams in environmental science and engineering to train professionals.
During the sixth, seventh, and eighth Five-Year Plan periods (1981-1995),
environmental scientists and engineers worked on pollution prevention and
control technologies.2 In 1996, the 1st year of the ninth Five-Year Plan, there
was an increase in reports on pollution control and environmental protection
in the media and a rise in the number of national development guidelines. The
State Council issued its Decisions on Issues on Environmental Protection in
1996 (The State Council of China, 2006). In the same year, combating acid
rain and controlling water pollution in major rivers and lakes such as Huai,
Hai, and Liao River, and Tai and Chao Lake were included in the ninth Five-
Year Plan. The central government adopted a campaign approach for achiev-
ing its policy goals. For example, to curb water pollution in the Huai River
caused by small township-village enterprises, the central government launched
the “Midnight” campaign in 1997 to conduct surprise check on the listed
15 highly polluting industries (Almond, Chen, Greenstone, & Li, 2009). The
“Control One, Meet Two Standards” campaign was also initiated in 1997 to
control sulfur dioxide (SO ) emissions so that total SO discharges could meet
national standards, and ambient air quality could meet standards in functional
areas (State Environmental Protection Administration [SEPA], 1996). News
reporters with major newspapers and magazines were invited to join the
“Midnight” campaign to expose serious water pollution cases and violators.
This was a significant development as pollution had been mainly considered

a technical issue and discussed only among experts and high-level policy
makers. It was not until 1996 that environmental protection started to draw
media and public attention.
Historically, advocates for environmental interests have been a few officials
of environmental agencies, academics, leaders of environmental nongovern-
mental organizations (NGOs), and sympathetic news reporters. However, envi-
ronmental interests were not sufficiently articulated, and economic growth
dominated the government agenda until the launch of the 11th Five-Year Plan
in 2005. The 2005 Songhua River incident made the Chinese central govern-
ment realize that industrial pollution could threat on social stability as well as
on the image of China in the international community (Organization for
Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005). The Songhua River flows
into Russia. There was therefore pressure for environmental information shar-
ing and collaborative actions for handling the problem between the two coun-
tries. In December 2005, Mr. Xie Zhenhua was forced to resign from his
position as chief of the SEPA (upgraded to the Ministry of Environmental
Protection in 2008). However, in November 2006, he was appointed vice chair-
man of the National Development and Reform Commission, a comprehensive
development decision-making agency above all the line ministries and depart-
ments in the Chinese central government. The Chinese leadership hoped that

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