The Human Dimensions of Pollution Policy Implementation: Air Quality in Rural China

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Date Published:

Sep 1, 2002


The government of the People's Republic of China has become increasingly concerned with its serious environmental problems over the past decade. One study suggests that as of the mid 1990's, urban air and water pollution alone cost the Chinese economy US $32.3 billion annually in premature deaths, morbidity, restricted activity, chronic bronchitis and other heath effects, which is equal to more than 9 percent of Gross National Product. That study estimates that 110,000 premature deaths occur each year, primarily in rural areas, as a result of indoor air pollution. General assessments of China's environmental problems run a range from the alarmist to the cautionary, but all agree that the problems are very serious.

In response, the Chinese government has taken a number of important and innovative policy steps to improve the situation. China was the first country to pass a national Agenda 21 policy. The PRC first established a leadership group on the environment under the State Council in 1974, and has repeatedly strengthened its institutional commitment to the environment since then. In 1998 this culminated in the creation of the ministerial–level State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) out of the former National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA). The concern for environmental protection is now shown in five–year plans and through the overhaul and strengthening of environmental laws. Recent years have also seen the initiation of high profile environmental campaigns, such as that restricting the use of leaded gasoline in large cities and that promoting reforestation in the aftermath of the Yangzi River floods of 1998.

Yet the Chinese state has also been plagued with problems in implementing and enforcing its environmental policies, especially in rural areas. Serious local environmental abuse regularly occurs, especially where there are overpowering economic incentives to exploit the environment for immediate gain — it is not uncommon, for example, to see people causing serious erosion by opening steep slopes (beyond the 25–degree legal maximum) to agriculture in poor areas, or losing windbreaks by illegally harvesting roadside trees for firewood. Large, state–owned enterprises, often utilizing antiquated equipment, collective enterprises, which often create income for local governments (including street committees in urban areas) and township–village enterprises, which may lack adequate funds for clean production, are also all often polluting.

This article reports the initial results of a collaborative project on the successes and failures of environmental policy implementation in Anqing, a small city and its rural hinterland on the Yangzi River in southern Anhui province. Our goal has been to learn when and how local citizens become environmentally responsible, and to draw appropriate lessons for policy. This includes two broad topics: First, we show how citizens receive basic environmental knowledge through schools, the media, local meetings, or personal experience (such as health problems). Specifically, the sections that follow examine the hypotheses that environmental awareness comes from the experience of environmental problems, from environmental education, or from increased wealth. Second, we consider whether people are able to act on that knowledge through their economic choices or their political and legal options. We discuss in particular the roles of recent legal reforms and local elections.

Last updated on 03/27/2015