Mar 11th, 2024

The Party-Government Joint Responsibility System in the Construction of an Ecological Civilization

Li Hongwei, Liu Xiaozhen

The Party-Government System with Chinese characteristics represents a blended power structure comprising a dual hierarchy involving the governing party and the governmental bureaucracy. In the realm of environmental protection, the Party-Government Joint Responsibility System is aimed at local party committees and other relevant leaders. This implies that both the local party committee and the local government at all levels jointly hold comprehensive accountability for the protection of the ecological environment and natural resources within their respective jurisdictions. The key leaders of the party committee and government shoulder primary responsibilities, while other relevant deputy leaders undertake corresponding duties within their designated areas of responsibility.


In the local power structures, the local party committee assumes a leading role. However, historical instances of environmental accountability have predominantly sought to hold government representatives responsible, resulting in constrained outcomes. To address this, the party-government joint responsibility system in the environmental sector emerges as a crucial institutional design customized for advancing ecological civilization within the framework of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics. Its objective is to enhance the execution of key strategic initiatives related to ecological civilization development and the actualization of a beautiful China, as envisioned by both the party and the government.


This system originated from the provisions and requirements of party-government joint responsibility for safety production management. In July 2013, General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed implementing the guidelines titled, “Party-Government Joint Responsibility, Dual Responsibility for Single Position, and Comprehensive Management with Joint Efforts” in safety production management, in response to the recurrence of major and particularly severe accidents. In November of the same year, while guiding the emergency response to the oil pipeline explosion and combustion incident in Qingdao, he emphasized the urgency of establishing and perfecting the safety production responsibility system based on this aforementioned guideline. This initiative aimed to establish the strictest safety production system. As a result, the handling of the metal dust explosion accident in Kunshan city, Jiangsu province on August 2, 2014, led to the serious accountability of the leadership members in the Kunshan and Suzhou Municipal Party Committee and government in Jiangsu Province.


Building upon this, some scholars engaged in safety production and environmental protection advocate for the institutionalization of “party-government joint responsibility, dual responsibility for one position” in the field of environmental protection. This call has gradually been acknowledged and adopted by the party and government. A landmark development in this regard was the pollution incident in the Tengger Desert in 2014, where officials from the local party committee and government, found negligent in their duties, were held legally accountable. Since then, party-government joint responsibility system has been adopted into the realm of ecological environmental protection.


In July 2015, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the General Office of the State Council jointly issued the “Provisional Measures for the Accountability of Party and Government Leading Cadres for Ecological and Environmental Damage.” This marked the first normative document on environmental protection issued in the form of an intra-party regulation. In August 2015, following the explosion incident at Tianjin Port, General Secretary Xi Jinping explicitly stated the need to promote the implementation of “party-government joint responsibility, dual responsibility for one position, and accountability for negligence” in the fields of safety production and environmental protection. In December 2015, environmental protection inspections programs conducted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China were piloted in Hebei Province. One of their key focuses was actively promoting institutional innovation (particularly within the party-government joint responsibility framework) in the field of environmental protection. This initiative aimed to swiftly address serious and prominent environmental issues and enhance the quality of the ecological environment.


In terms of the objectives or functions of institutional design, the key issue targeted by the party-government joint responsibility system is the gap between elevating the construction of ecological civilization to a major strategic deployment for both the party and the nation and the virtual neglect of leadership responsibility by party committees. The Communist Party of China and its leading government have been highly attentive to environmental issues since the era of reform and opening up. The XVIII National Congress of the Party integrated the construction of ecological civilization into the overarching framework of the Five-pronged Comprehensive Strategy, covering economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological and environmental development. Additionally, it introduced the statement “The Communist Party of China leads the people in building a socialist ecological civilization” into the revised Party Constitution. In 2017, the XVIIII National Congress supplemented the new revised Party Constitution, emphasizing “Green waters and lush mountains: a wealth surpassing gold and silver,” and “implementing the strictest system for ecological and environmental protection.” This signifies that the Communist Party of China, especially its cadre group, has become the most important entity in contemporary China's ecological civilization construction. However, in reality, the leadership responsibility of its party committees at various levels is largely neglected and often perfunctory.


This disparity can be observed when taking a glimpse into the transformation of the national environmental regulatory system. Initially, environmental oversight in China predominantly targeted businesses. However, due to economic path dependence and the GDP-oriented nature of the entire societal modernization process in that period, supervising enterprises proved significantly limited in effectiveness. Since 2015, China has embarked on the implementation of comprehensive environmental inspections, redirecting focus toward supervising government activities. The intention is to induce pressure across different administrative levels, ranging from bureau-level to division-level, and to capture the attention of local governments to advance environmental governance.


However, a notable issue is the insufficient authority of the inspection bodies, and more importantly, local party committees are not included in the scope of inspections. In practice, local governments operate under the direct leadership of local party committees, which control major policies and crucial resources for local development. Yet, when significant environmental incidents or prominent environmental issues arise, the investigation and accountability often target administrative personnel within the government system, with little consequence for the party committee leadership.


It is evident that the construction of an ecological civilization -- whether considering the distinctive characteristics of an ecological system formed by a community of living organisms in mountains, waters, forests, fields, lakes, grass, and sands, or taking into account the grand ecological-economic-social system shaped by the interplay of the ecological system, economic system, and social system -- can only be a strategic action driven by holistic understanding and coordinated advancement. However, the existing environmental management system appears to remain significantly fragmented, resulting in dispersed responsibilities and overlapping duties caused by a rigid hierarchical and departmentalized management system. This has become a systemic weakness hindering the advancement of ecological civilization construction.


Therefore, the essence of the design and reform of the party-government joint responsibility system lies in explicitly extending the responsibility for ecological environmental governance (supervision) beyond a singular government entity to encompass both the party committee and the government. These two entities symbolize the unified collaboration and shared responsibility of the governing party and its leading government, embodying two major management systems. In summary, this new leadership system comprises the following two aspects.


One aspect involves strengthening the building of the party’s governing capacity, particularly in the political realm. A typical example in this context is the incident of unauthorized construction of villas in the Xi'an section of the northern foothills of the Qinling Mountains and the ecological damage event in the Qilian Mountains. In the case of the Qilian Mountains, the circular issued in June 2017 by the General Office of the China Central Committee of Communist Party and the General Office of the State Council, titled “Notification on the Inspection and Handling of Ecological and Environmental Issues in the National Nature Reserve of Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province and Its Lessons,” pointed out prominent ecological and environmental problems in the national nature reserve of Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province. Although these issues were caused by various factors, including institutional-and policy-related reasonsthey fundamentally stemmed from ideological deviations in the understanding of the officials in Gansu Province along with officials in relevant cities and counties. These deviations led to a failure to genuinely implement the decisions and deployments of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Therefore, the key to implementing the party-government joint responsibility system is to enhance the political consciousness and responsibility of party committee members at all levels, especially the main leadership.


The second aspect involves advancing the comprehensive leadership of the party to overcome institutional and mechanistic barriers in the governance of ecological and environmental protection, thereby enhancing the modernization level of environmental governance. Considering the fragmented power structure in the environmental regulatory system, deviations in the implementation of environmental policies due to factors like information asymmetry, financial constraints, and the promotion incentive mechanism, as well as the imbalance in opportunities for government and societal participation in the environmental governance process, the comprehensive leadership of the party can serve as an effective approach to overcome these institutional barriers and enhance the level of environmental governance.


The party-government integrated system, operating under the unified leadership of the Communist Party of China, serves as the background and foundation for the introduction and operation of the party-government joint responsibility system in the field of ecological environment. Additionally, it is closely associated with the progressively strengthened political system and the political culture characterized by “comprehensive leadership of the party” that has developed since the 18th Party Congress in 2012. In this dual contextual background, the supervision and governance of ecological and environmental issues evolved from the original single “administrative accountability” to “party-government joint responsibility,” achieving the mutual integration of the political leadership system and the administrative management system. This transformation is also reflected in enhancing administrative power through political influence and reciprocally embedding administration into politics.


The effectiveness of this new mechanism can be vividly illustrated through the case of the “low embankment construction” incident in Dongting Lake, Hunan Province, and its resolution. Dongting Lake, as the second-largest freshwater lake in China, plays a crucial role as a key regulating lake and is an ecological wetland in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, often referred to as the “kidney of the Yangtze.” However, between 2001 and 2017, a private business owner in Yuanjiang City conducted illegal reclamation of lake islets and river channels. Under the pretext of producing and selling lake reeds, he also undertook unauthorized construction of low embankments, engaging in activities such as illegal fishing and sand mining. These actions significantly impacted river flood control and aquatic ecological safety.


It is puzzling that despite being repeatedly identified and lawfully dealt with by relevant law enforcement agencies since 2014, this illegal operation and ecological destruction persisted in defiance of orders to cease. The matter only saw resolution in April 2018 when General Secretary Xi Jinping inspected Yueyang, and in May of the same year, the Central Environmental Protection Special Inspection Team pinpointed the problem. Subsequently, the Hunan Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection and Hunan Provincial Supervisory Commission jointly conducted an investigation and imposed serious accountability on violators. This led to the ultimate resolution of the issue, resulting in the investigation and accountability of 62 public officials from 25 administrative units.


The above-mentioned cases clearly illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the party-government joint responsibility system as a mechanism for advancing ecological civilization construction. On one hand, the degree of emphasis and political orientation exhibited by party committees at various levels, particularly the primary leadership, are indeed crucial and effective in addressing ecological and environmental issues, as humorously encapsulated in the saying, “When the top leader takes it seriously, the problem becomes easier to solve.” On the other hand, the necessity for specific directives or involvement from the central government(and even the highest leadership) to activate this mechanism for a seemingly straightforward case reveals the passive nature of the top-down accountability and responsibility approach. In other words, if bottom-up media and public pressure played a more proactive role, this system could potentially function better in the provision of environmental governance.

Li Hongwei and Liu Xiaozhen
Li Hongwei and Liu Xiaozhen

are from National Acedemy of 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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