Apr 12th, 2024

Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection System

Ju Changhua

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To strengthen the environmental responsibilities of the government and the pollution control obligations of corporate businesses, China has been exploring the implementation of an environmental protection inspection system since 2002. In the period from 2006 to 2009, the Ministry of Environmental Protection established six regional environmental inspection agencies covering East China, South China, Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and North China. These agencies primarily focused on conducting environmental protection inspections of corporate businesses.

Subsequently, recognizing the limitations of solely supervising corporate businesses in environmental protection inspections, the concept of supervising local governments emerged. In 2014-2015, comprehensive inspections were initiated at the municipal level, signifying a transition from inspecting enterprises to inspecting government entities. Since September 2015, the central government has strengthened the pivotal role of local party committees in environmental protection, integrating the principle of Party-Government Joint Accountability into the environmental regulatory framework.

The establishment of the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection system  emerged as a pivotal decision within the first batch of proposals concerning sustainable development initiated by the Central Committee for Comprehensive Deepening of Reform, established after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012. Serving as a distinctive approach to environmental governance with Chinese characteristics, central environmental protection inspection primarily aims to supervise the implementation of existing environmental regulations.

In July 2015, the Environmental Protection Inspection Scheme (Provisional) was approved. According to this plan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection officially launched environmental protection inspections within party committees, governments, and relevant departments at the provincial level, starting from early 2016, signifying the formal initiation of this mechanism. The inspection was initially piloted in the Hebei province and subsequently conducted in four batches in July and November 2016, and then in April and August 2017, achieving the first-round coverage of all 31 provinces nationwide.


After the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection mechanism underwent further normalization and institutionalization. In June 2019, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued the Regulations on Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection Work.


This regulation stipulates that the central government enforces the ecological and environmental protection inspection system and establishes dedicated inspection agencies. These agencies conduct inspections of the party committees and governments at the provincial, autonomous region, and directly-administered municipality levels, as well as of relevant departments of the State Council, state-owned enterprises, and other organizations, to ensure compliance with ecological and environmental protection standards.


The regulations also include follow-up inspections, a practice wherein subsequent reviews assess the progress of rectification efforts, the completion status of key improvement tasks, and the development of long-term mechanisms for environmental protection. In response to serious ecological and environmental issues, special inspections are organized as needed.


The Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection Office (renamed the Coordination Bureau from October 2023) is located within the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and is responsible for the daily work of the leading group for central inspection, while undertaking specific implementation tasks. It has evolved into a permanent regulatory mechanism under the comprehensive unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee, executing ecological and environmental protection governance.


From July 2019 to April 2022, the second round of inspections covered all 31 provinces, autonomous regions, directly-administered municipalities, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in six batches. Additionally, two national institutions and six state-owned enterprises were included in this comprehensive inspection process.


Today, the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection has evolved into an integrated regulatory system within the national institutional framework. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment serves as the primary lead department responsible for operating and managing this system. It oversees the organization and execution of the inspections, along with the daily management of the leading group's office. The structure is defined as the "one office with six bureaus," consisting of a national office and six regional sub-bureaus.


This arrangement builds upon the supervisory authority of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and tackles previous challenges in supervision. It aims to rectify issues such as inadequate attention from local party committees, governments, and enterprises to environmental concerns, which has resulted in delayed responses to environmental problems in the past. Strictly speaking, the primary function of this system is to supervise governance rather than impose penalties; to lead rather than rectify. The "central" prefix does not merely signify authority; it conveys utmost gravity, prompting the resolution of significant ecological and environmental issues that hinder national sustainable development and issues that seriously impact people's safety and well-being. Therefore, this system primarily involves inter-departmental coordination rather than the exercise of departmental powers.

Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection is a significant reform measure and institutional arrangement adopted by the Communist Party of China's Central Committee to strengthen ecological and environmental protection efforts. From the implementation of the first two rounds, it has become a crucial tool for addressing grave ecological and environmental issues, having effectively resolved long-standing issues such as unregulated mining in the Qilian Mountains, unauthorized construction of villas at the northern foot of the Qinling Mountains in the Shaanxi province, and the chemical industrial encirclement of the Yangtze river.


Furthermore, it enhanced the impact of ecological and environmental protection governance on fostering economic and social development. This led to a notable increase in the proactivity of local party committees and governments in embracing the “new development” philosophy. This in turn has vigorously promoted the transformation and upgrading of industrial structures and facilitated high-quality economic development. Additionally, while sternly punishing environmentally non-compliant enterprises and addressing significant ecological and environmental issues, it has also fostered a more equitable competitive market environment.

Undoubtedly, from the perspective of the coordinated advancement of the Five Major Development Concepts—comprehensive promotion of economic, political, cultural, social, and sustainable development—and especially in the context of constructing the sustainable development strategy in the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, there are still some issues requiring attention in the execution of this system.


Firstly, there is the impact of the "one-size-fits-all" approach on normal economic and social activities.


The most prominent feature or "advantage" of the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection as a regulatory strategy is that it leverages the highest political authority to directly transmit institutional pressure on local authorities. In this manner, the inspection body, representing the central governing body, assumes a top-down and authoritative stance to examine and address ecological and environmental protection issues, particularly those of specific existing challenges, within the jurisdiction of local party and government officials. As a result, under the unilateral rigidity of intense institutional pressure, the targeted “one-cut approach” can easily transform into a more generalized “one-size-fits-all” approach (comprehensive prohibition in a simplistic and blunt manner).


In practice, some local officials, lacking adequate or scientific policy awareness, often resort to a “lazy governance” approach of oversimplified responses. This includes taking direct actions such as shutdowns, bans, and prohibitions on polluting enterprises and industries. Particularly in politically sensitive contexts or issues related to political stance, local officials may opt for execution, regardless of their understanding of specific regulatory actions, merely to convey their political position.


For instance, in certain regions, overly stringent law enforcement not only restricts production and halts operations for legally compliant companies with normal emissions but also results in the closure of essential projects like livestock farms, tofu shops, and bread stores. In some cases, even household wood-burning stoves have been sealed off in pursuit of air quality control targets, triggering intense public sentiment.

Secondly, there is the impact of excessive accountability on the enthusiasm of grassroots workers.

Accountability is a fundamental means of public administration and there is no exception in the field of ecological and environmental protection issues. Whoever crosses untouchable red lines, damages the ecological environment, or engages in perfunctory practices in governance should be held accountable.


However, some cases of inappropriate or excessive accountability during the implementation of inspections have drawn attention from the media and the public. These include: firstly, focusing excessively on grassroots cadres as the targets of accountability at the expense of neglecting higher-level accountability; secondly, seeking speed rather than accuracy in the accountability process and arbitrarily simplifying the investigation procedure; thirdly, adopting a "simple and crude" approach in accountability processing while not allowing room for argument or disregarding the actual situation; fourthly, an excessive dependence on accountability to drive work forward without implementing effective management solutions.


These practices not only deviate from the original intention of this system but also compromise the orientation, gravity, and authority of the accountability policy. Moreover, they can lead grassroots workers to be excessively cautious in their daily work, potentially affecting their work enthusiasm.

Thirdly, formalism and bureaucratic practices increase the burden on grassroots governments.

As a significant initiative of the party and the government, the organization and implementation of the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection system has mobilized a considerable amount of human and material resources. In addition to nationwide mobilization and organizational preparation, the working groups stationed across provinces, directly-administered municipalities, and autonomous regions are composed of personnel drawn from national institutions such as the CPC Central Committee, the State Council, the National People's Congress, and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.


Once stationed, these personnel require strong support and cooperation from local party and government departments for their subsequent tasks. Consequently, the administrative expenses associated with these efforts surpass those incurred in regular ecological and environmental protection oversight. Additionally, certain normative or bureaucratic requirements introduced during the inspection process have led to formalistic practices at the grassroots level, including keeping a means to reverse course in implementation, maintaining a work log at any time, obtaining official approvals at every level, and strictly adhering to existing regulations.

In response to the aforementioned issues, for example, regarding the continuous doubtful inquiries about the "one-size-fits-all" approach, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment has repeatedly emphasized that the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection adopts a simultaneous inspection and rectification approach. This involves tailoring measures to local conditions, providing classified guidance, and advancing work in an orderly manner. It also takes the “one-size-fits-all” problem into its inspection scope as a typical issue of formalism and bureaucracy in environmental protection.


Similarly, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission have included excessive accountability in environmental protection inspections as a counterexample in their guiding cases. This instructs disciplinary and supervisory agencies at all levels to accurately grasp the spirit of guiding cases and enforce policies with precision.


Furthermore, in addressing the issue of excessive burdens on grassroots governments resulting from inspection implementation, the Regulations on Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection Work explicitly mandate that arrangements for inspection receptions and logistics strictly adhere to relevant regulations. Additionally, whenever possible, the adoption of simplified work procedures is emphasized to genuinely alleviate the burden on grassroots governments.

After the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2022, the Central Ecological and Environmental Protection Inspection system entered a more normalized and regulated phase. However, the long-term legitimacy of its existence and its governance effectiveness will require further observation over an extended period.

In the current state of China where the rule of law is not fully established and the supervisory system, characterized by strict cadre assessment and accountability mechanisms, can quickly strengthen the government's responsibilities for environmental protection and corporate obligations for pollution control. This encourages both the government and enterprises to transition from a reactive to a proactive approach and contributes to the formation of green governance consciousness within the party.

However, long-term operation of this system may also give rise to certain path dependencies. For society, the dominant leader's preference for efficiency may pose a threat to the normal legal order of the environment, and the ossification of departmental interests may result in an excessive correction of the relationship between environmental protection and social development. For local party officials, discord may emerge from the prolonged interplay between bottom-up grievances and top-down authoritative constraints.

Ju Changhua (鞠昌华)
Ju Changhua (鞠昌华)

researcher from Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

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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