Apr 12th, 2024

Evaluation of China's River-Lake Chief System

Lin Zhen, Meng Ruixuan

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I. Formation and Development of the River-Lake Chief System PolicyFirst Chapter

Water is the essence of life and the cornerstone of development. The presence of lush greenery and clear waters is a signal for ecological civilization, with clean water ensuring the health and well-being of people. China boasts a well-developed water system characterized by numerous rivers and lakes, holding abundant total water resources. However, these resources are not evenly distributed, with per capita water resources amounting to less than one-fourth of the world average. In rapid modernization, China, akin to other developed nations, inevitably faces severe water pollution issues. Western scholars depict the situation by using phrases such as “a country with a river of polluted black water”. Yet, the challenge extends beyond mere “dirty water”; the swift progression of industrialization and urbanization, coupled with the repercussions of climate change and its existing widespread problems, such as “excessive rainfall” (resulting in flooding disasters), “water scarcity” (manifesting as droughts and urban water shortages), and “turbid water” (associated with soil erosion and eutrophication).

The conflict between the development and preservation of rivers and lakes is increasingly apparent. The “2002 China Environmental Status Report,” analysis of 741 key monitoring sections across the seven major water systems① reveals that 29.1% of the total area fall within levels I to III, 30.0% within levels IV and V, and 40.9% are classified as inferior water quality (level V). Major lakes struggle with substantial nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, resulting in a significant eutrophication problem.

Historically, the management of rivers and lakes has primarily fallen under the jurisdiction of local water authorities. Despite continuous emphasis by various levels of government on protection and management, the introduction of policies such as the river and lake systems coordination strategy, the most stringent water resource management system, and the construction of a water ecological civilization have not yielded the desired outcomes. The scenario of “Nine Dragons managing water” persists.

This scenario symbolizes overlapping responsibilities and inefficiency in water governance, characterized by undefined roles, avoidance of mutual responsibilities, internal management conflicts, coordination deficits, operational inefficiency, and inadequate supervision and oversight. River and lake management and protection span across different administrative regions and industries, necessitating a high degree of overall planning and coordination. Recognizing the need for improved models, the river-lake chief system has emerged as a response to these challenges.


Governance of water is crucial for effective governance of the country. The recognition by the Communist Party of China and the government underscores that maintaining a healthy water environment is not only a fundamental requirement for state governance but also a pivotal indicator of good governance.

The River-Lake Chief System, introduced as an institutional innovation to address the rising water pollution challenges, holds a significant place within the objective responsibility system for constructing ecological civilization with Chinese characteristics. This system establishes a chief executive responsibility framework tasked with overseeing the protection, restoration, and management of rivers, lakes, and other water bodies. The term “River-Lake Chief System” encompasses both the river chief and lake chief systems, extending to various bodies of water such as the Bay Chief System, Reservoir Chief System, Canal Chief System, Pond Chief System, and others. As an institutional arrangement, it mandates senior party and government leaders at different local levels to assume the roles of river and lake chiefs, responsible for overseeing water pollution control and water quality protection within their respective jurisdictions. The River-Lake Chief System represents both an upgrade and a supplement to the existing water resource management system.

The River Chief System traces its origins back to the early 21st century, intimately connected to Tai Lake, China's third-largest freshwater lake. In June 2003, under the advocacy and leadership of the then Provincial Party Secretary, Xi Jinping, Zhejiang province launched the “Project Pilot in a Thousand Villages and Project Improvement in Many Thousands of Villages” initiative, aiming to transform the province into an ecologically improved region.

Subsequently, in October of the same year, in response to the pollution affecting inflowing rivers into Tai Lake, Changxing County in Huzhou City, situated on the southwest shore of Tai Lake, adopted a grassroots leadership responsibility system from the national health city initiative. This system included roles such as section chief, road chief, and lane chief. The county pioneered the "River Chief System," appointing leaders from the Water Resources Bureau and Environmental Sanitation Department as river chiefs. Their responsibilities included tasks like dredging and cleaning water systems.

The outbreak of blue-green algae pollution in Lake Taihu during the summer of 2007 prompted Wuxi City, located on the north shore of Tai Lake, to implement the River Chief System citywide. Party and government leaders at various levels took on the roles of river chiefs for 64 waterways, engaging in pollution source control and river water quality improvement. The River Chief System yielded significant results, with the water quality compliance rate in Wuxi's water functional zones increasing from 7.1% in 2007 to 44.4% by 2015.

In June 2008, the Jiangsu provincial government established a “Dual River Chief System” for 15 major inflowing rivers in the Tai Lake basin. This involved leaders at both provincial and municipal levels jointly serving as “river chiefs” to coordinate the governance of Tai Lake and its connecting rivers. By 2012, Jiangsu Province extended the “River Chief System” throughout the province, shifting its primary goal from “achieving water quality standards” to a comprehensive, long-term focus on “ecological safety, water supply safety, and flood control safety” for watercourses.

The initial success of the River Chief System in the Tai Lake region has garnered attention and become a model for other provinces. In 2013, both Tianjin Municipality and Zhejiang Province took comprehensive measures to implement the “River Chief System” throughout their entire areas of jurisdiction. By September 2014, the Ministry of Water Resources initiated a pilot program for the River Chief System in 46 counties and districts nationwide. Even before receiving formal directives from the central government, eight provinces and municipalities—namely Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hainan—had already independently introduced official documents to actively promote the River Chief System.

Due to the evident success of the pilot programs, the River Chief System has evolved from being a local government emergency measure to becoming a regular and long-term national policy. In December 2016, the General Office of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued the “Opinions on the Comprehensive Implementation of the River Chief System.” This directive mandates that the protection of water resources, prevention of water pollution, improvement of water environments, and restoration of aquatic ecosystems should be regarded as major tasks. Furthermore, it calls for the nationwide implementation of the River Chief System for rivers and lakes by the end of 2018.

The directive emphasizes the establishment of a four-tier system of river chiefs at the provincial, municipal, county, and township levels. This aims to create a robust mechanism for river and lake management and protection characterized by clear roles and responsibilities, coordinated efforts, stringent supervision, and effective protection. This mechanism serves as an institutional guarantee for safeguarding the health and sustainable function of rivers and lakes.

Through the promotion of its administrative directives, the central government bolstered the legitimacy of the River Chief System policy. In May 2017, the Office of the Ministry of Water Resources introduced a comprehensive package of work systems related to the full implementation of the River Chief System. These systems include river chief conferences, information sharing, submission, work supervision, assessment, accountability, and incentives.

In June 2017, the revised “Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of the People's Republic of China” mandated provinces, municipalities, counties, and townships to establish the River Chief System. Through this system, they are required to organize and lead water resource protection, watercourse and shoreline management, water pollution prevention and control, and water environment governance within their respective jurisdictions in a hierarchical and segmented management framework. Achieving water environment protection goals is a necessary criterion for assessing and evaluating local governments and their leaders.

To date, the authority of the Tai Lake basin water environment governance mechanism has received dual confirmation at both the policy and legal levels. In July 2017, the “Regulations on the River Chief System of Zhejiang Province” and the “Regulations on the Management and Protection of Lakes in Anhui Province” were officially issued, marking significant advancements in local legislation for the River Chief System.

Lakes are critical components of river systems, serving as vital water areas for flood storage and water retention. They play irreplaceable roles in flood control, water supply, shipping and navigation, and ecological preservation. However, in some areas, economic development processes have led to activities such as the enclosure and reclamation of lakeshores, encroachment upon water areas, discharge of pollutants beyond permissible limits, and engagement in illegal aquaculture and unauthorized sand mining, resulting in significant issues.

These issues include the shrinking of lake areas, reduction in water area, deterioration of water quality, and destruction of biological habitats, leading to severe degradation of lake functions.  In response, in January 2018, the General Office of the Communist Party of China's  Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council specifically issued the “Guiding Opinions on Implementing the Lake Chief System,” signifying the formal nationwide implementation of the Lake Chief System. By the end of 2018, except for Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, all 31 provinces (autonomous regions, direct-administered municipalities) had comprehensively established the Lake Chief System.

II. The Implementation Effects of the River Chief System Policy

Since the end of 2016, China has implemented a comprehensive system where local party and government leaders shoulder the primary responsibility, known as the 'River-Lake Chief System,' forming the core of the organizational framework and responsibility system for the protection and governance of rivers, lakes, and other water bodies. Nationally, there are over 1.2 million river-lake chiefs, with more than 300,000 at the provincial, municipal, county, and township levels. Annual river-lake patrols surpass 7 million, with over 900,000 grassroots village-level river-lake chiefs, including patrol and guardian personnel, stationed as the 'frontline' in the protection and governance of rivers and lakes.

In the implementation process of the River-Lake Chief System, various regions have introduced institutional and mechanistic innovations tailored to their local conditions. For instance, in the seven major river basins, including the Yangtze River, Yellow River, Hai River, and Pearl River, a joint conference system has been established. This system adopts a “Basin-wide Management Organization + Provincial River Chief Office” model. In over 20 provinces, Joint Prevention and Control Mechanisms for rivers and lakes have been established, crossing provincial boundaries. Furthermore, efforts have been made to explore the establishment of horizontal ecological compensation mechanisms, appoint joint river-lake chiefs, conduct joint patrols and law enforcement, fostering a powerful collaborative force in the protection and governance of rivers and lakes.

To strengthen the connection between administrative law enforcement and the realms of criminal justice and public interest litigation, there is a nationwide exploration and promotion of mechanisms such as “River-Lake Chief + Police Chief,” “River-Lake Chief + Prosecutor General,” and “River-Lake Chief + Chief Justice.” These mechanisms aim to enhance the linkage between administrative law enforcement and other institutional frameworks, such as criminal justice and public interest litigation, with the goal of continuously elevating the level of legal governance in the management of water ecological environments.

In order to achieve clean and healthy rivers and lakes, the joint efforts of all citizens are crucial in co-constructing, co-governing, and co-sharing responsibilities. Consequently, diverse regions are proactively advancing public participation mechanisms. They are fostering and strengthening civilian river-lake chief systems along with volunteer teams. These include distinctive roles such as the “River Party Member Chief,” “River Youth Chief,” “River Women Chief,” “River Young Pioneers Chief,” and “River Corporate Chief.”

These individuals essentially serve as overseers of the River-Lake Chief System, actively participating in the management and protection of rivers and lakes in various capacities. A noteworthy force among them is referred to as “River Youth.” This term consists of the multitude of young volunteers who actively engage in safeguarding their mother rivers, supporting the River Chief System. They function as assistants to the river-lake chief system, actively participating in, supporting, and supervising the implementation of the River Chief System.

In 2022, there were over 8,200 “River Youth” teams nationwide, with the participation of 470,000 volunteers. Together, they organized nearly 35,000 beach-cleaning activities.

Overall, since the comprehensive implementation of the River-Lake Chief System, regions across the country have fully leveraged the institutional advantages of this new system, tailoring measures to their local conditions and implementing targeted strategies. They have also dedicated efforts to the lawful governance of rivers and lakes, employing stringent measures to protect water resources, expedite the restoration of water ecosystems, and vigorously combat water pollution. These efforts have led to a significant transformation in the state of rivers and lakes. The proportion of surface water sections with water quality levels I-III nationwide has increased from 67.8% in 2016 to 87.9% in 2022. Urban black and odorous water bodies in 295 prefecture-level and above cities nationwide have been largely eliminated, with a 40% elimination rate in county-level cities. As a result, both urban and rural living environments have seen marked improvements.

III. Critical Reflection from the Perspective of Socialist Ecological Civilization

From a theoretical perspective and considering the goal of (socialist) ecological civilization construction, there are issues related to China's River-Lake Chief System and its implementation that require further observation and discussion. On the one hand, how does the strengthening of the main responsibility lead to coordinated progress in river-lake protection and governance? Local party and government leaders, especially the “top leaders” who serve as the general River-Lake Chief, can largely resolve management disputes and conflicts within their respective jurisdiction. However, when facing basin-wide and regional cooperative governance, issues such as local protectionism may emerge, necessitating higher-level river-lake chiefs for coordination.

On the other hand, the generalization and vagueness of leadership responsibility may lead to issues such as the dilution and formalization of duties. Some local leaders occupy positions in numerous deliberative and coordinating bodies simultaneously, diverting attention away from river and lake governance matters and resulting in a situation of being “in name only.” Therefore, the trend for the future water ecological environmental governance in China lies in achieving the organic integration of primary responsibilities of the party and government with social co-governance.

From environmental, industrial and social policies to urban development or technological innovation. “Policy Papers” offers concise and accessible analyses and commentary on a variety key issues and current developments to political decision makers academics, activists, and the wider public.

From environmental, industrial and social policies to urban development or technological innovation. “Policy Papers” offers concise and accessible analyses and commentary on a variety key issues and current developments to political decision makers academics, activists, and the wider public.

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