Pollution, Legitimacy and Transition

Published on Author wenxiang

The old and the newA side effect of China’s rapid growth since its reform under Deng, the pollution experienced in the Chinese capital presents an immediate reminder of the tradeoffs made in pursuit of growth. As an unregulated externality (at least historically), the problems posed by pollution highlight the “tragedy of the commons”, especially under the (effectively) laissez-faire attitude taken in recent years.

Having shifted towards a policy of economic development and privatization, the Chinese Communist Party draws its political legitimacy from the quality-of-life increases resulting from economic growth, and predicates its continued political dominance upon continued improvement. As such, pollution’s tangible detraction from Chinese living standards poses a threat to the CCP’s mandate, which has already come under pressure from the double-dip global recession affecting demand in Europe and North America. Although the recent [political] transition has yet to yield deviations in national policy, the power shift towards the princelings is likely to affect domestic policy. In particular, the gestating issues of social welfare and the gender disparity will begin to crop up in the later years of Xi’s term, and his background [explain!] may prove revealing of his response. More immediately, the rapid rate at which Bo Xilai was deposed from higher office (as a projected senior member of the politburo) reflects the hidden instabilities within the CCP.

2 Responses to Pollution, Legitimacy and Transition

  1. Politically, is pollution a national issue, or one that can be laid at the feet of provincial and municipal governments? On the opposite side, in terms of policy (see the chapter in Brandt & Rawski, and our supplemental readings) isn’t there already a fairly wide-ranging set of measures in place? So what are the costs (and benefits) to local political leaders in actually enforcing stated policy in this area? What might be necessary to change that? Can enforcement be removed from local hands, or can incentives shift such that local party officials (who simultaneously hold local / provincial political office) find it in their own interest to enforce policy?

  2. I would argue that given the hierarchical nature of the Chinese government (primarily the top-down administrative pattern) any responsibility that local governments fail to meet effectively represents a failure of the central administrative system. While the decentralized split between local/national level policies still exists, especially given the sheer size of the Chinese government, ultimate responsibility (and credit/blame) still falls upon regional administrators, especially given the wide-scale costs of pollution. Simply put, the government needs to re-assess the importance of pollution, and undertake a rewriting on the guidelines on pollution.