Emerging environmental Multi-Level Governance in China? Environmental protests, public participation and local institution-building

Published date01 April 2019
AuthorOliver Hensengerth,Yiyi Lu
Date01 April 2019
Subject MatterSpecial Issue Articles
Special Issue: Multi-Level Governance in China
Emerging environmental
Multi-Level Governance
in China? Environmental
protests, public
participation and local
Oliver Hensengerth
Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Yiyi Lu
Tianjin Normal University, Tianjin, China
Chinese state reforms have resulted in both horizontal and vertical diffusion of actors in
policy-making and policy implementation, leading to the creation of new collaborative
institutions between government and non-government actors. At the non-governmen-
tal level, this has inter alia enabled the development of non-governmental organizations
and the passage of a raft of legislation for public participation and access to information.
However, the political and legal constraints imposed by the authoritarian system have
meant that private citizens still find it hard to make their voice heard. Public participa-
tion legislation has suffered from an implementation gap, leading to the proliferation of
environmental protests across China. For private citizens, therefore, protest outside of
the formal-legal channels is a key tool to influence the policy process and demand public
participation and better government accountability. There are indications that protests
may result in the improvement and creation of local institutions that facilitate public
participation, which in turn help to foster a new model of governance that contains
features of Multi-Level Governance.
Accountability, China, citizen participation, environmental protest, Multi-Level
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(2) 121–143
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076717753279
Corresponding author:
Yiyi Lu, College of Politics and Public Administration, Tianjin Normal University, No. 393 Bin Shui Xi Dao,
Tianjin 300387, China.
Email: yiyilu2011@qq.com
Chinese state reforms have attracted signif‌icant attention as they have created new
opportunities for participation for private citizens who had previously been
excluded from decision-making. Some describe the emerging system of governance
as pluralized authoritarianism (Lewis, 2013), consultative authoritarianism
(He and Thøgersen, 2010; Teets, 2013) or deliberative authoritarianism (He and
Warren, 2011; Zhang, 2013). Others have referred to it as managed pluralism
(Balzer, 2004). Some authors even see the emergence of a system of Multi-Level
Governance (MLG) – a concept hitherto associated with democratic pluralism
rather than with authoritarianism – although they acknowledge the limitations
imposed by China’s authoritarian context (Hensengerth, 2015; Jing, 2015).
MLG ‘describes the simultaneous activation of governmental and non-
governmental actors at various jurisdictional levels’ (Piattoni, 2010: 159). It focuses
on the shift of power ‘from a unif‌ied authority, acting rationally at the centre of
government, towards a dif‌fusion of power and ‘‘multiple centres’’’ (Cairney,
2012: 155). In the realm of environmental governance, participation of non-
governmental actors, including private citizens, is essential to MLG. Their partici-
pation has been proposed as a way to overcome the lack of ef‌fectiveness in
environmental policy-making (Newig and Fritsch, 2009). This not only holds
true for democracies and post-socialist countries (Cent et al., 2014) but also for
authoritarian countries.
In China, recognizing the severity of environmental degradation and the need to
improve environmental governance to avert crises, the central government has
introduced legislation for public participation in environmental decision-making
since the seminal 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law. This has
been followed by other legislation further detailing requirements for public partici-
pation along with legislation on access to information. The latter is also known as
open government information legislation. These measures, together with decentral-
ization, privatization and laws permitting the formation of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), are part of an array of state reforms aimed at improving
the policy process for decision-making and implementation.
However, as the Chinese policy process continues to suf‌fer from an implemen-
tation gap (Kostka and Mol, 2013), laws and policies to encourage public partici-
pation in environmental governance have not always been translated into reality.
Continued lack of meaningful public participation has led to environmental
protests in many places. Indeed, the authorities’ increased willingness to involve
citizens in planning decisions for polluting or otherwise controversial development
projects have largely been spurred by the growing number of protests (Grano and
Zhang, 2016: 167).
This article focuses on the question of how environmental protests, by demand-
ing more government accountability, may contribute to local institution-building
that in turn improves environmental governance, allowing a model of governance
that resembles MLG in some important aspects to develop in China’s authoritarian
122 Public Policy and Administration 34(2)

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