Department of Geography and Resource Management (GRM), The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Research Projects

Environmental policy and air pollution in china: governance and strategy

Prof. XU Yuan

This dozen-year project systematically analyzes how and why China has expectedly lost and then surprisingly gained ground in the quest to solve the complicated environmental problem of air pollution over the past two decades. The primary focus is on how China’s sulfur dioxide emissions rose quickly in tandem with rapid economic growth but then dropped to a level not seen for at least four decades. It aims to provide a theoretical understanding to explain how China achieved deep and sustained pollution mitigation without democracy and sound rule of law. Causal relationships are explored between the favorable outcome and the unfavorable path. The major puzzle is why China frequently witnesses both sides at the same time or whether the conventional insights may have missed something important in reading China. China’s strategy is theorized into goal-centered governance. China is both highly centralized – in goal setting – and highly decentralized – in goal attainment, policy making and implementation. Unlike the rule-based governance in developed countries as indicated in their well-established rule of law, China places goals in the first place, while deficiencies in policy making and implementation are much tolerated as long as goals can be attained. The mitigation trajectory was not centrally planned but gradually evolved through decentralized pathfinding under centralized goals. In other words, the Chinese puzzle should primarily be explained from the perspective of its governance strategy but not individual policies. A strategic mistake is often a lot more devastating and far-reaching than any policy stumble, while an effective strategy can accommodate many policy mistakes without compromising much the final outcome. The project was funded by CUHK, HK RGC, MIT and Princeton over the past dozen years. A monograph is published: Xu, Y., 2021. Environmental Policy and Air Pollution in China: Governance and Strategy, Routledge, London. 1st edition. 240 pages.