The State Council itself recognizes that there are significant barriers to legal compliance
“In some regions and departments, laws are not observed, or strictly enforced, violators are not brought to justice; local protectionism, departmental protectionism and difficulties in law enforcement occur from time to time; some government functionaries take bribes and bend the law, abuse their power when executing the law, abuse their authority to override the law, and substitute their words for the law…”
State Council, Promoting the Rule of Law (Feb. 28, 2008)
China’s State Council and environmental protection agencies have introduced numerous environmental laws and regulations in recent years, resulting in a fairly comprehensive albeit complex legal framework. However, effective implementation and enforcement of these laws remains a persistent challenge.
Overall compliance with China’s environmental laws is reported to be as low as 10 percent1. In addition, when companies are penalized for failing to comply with environmental laws or regulations, the central government reports that it collects only 30 percent of the fees2.
The reasons for this low level of enforcement have been reviewed extensively in academic journals and by the media. Perhaps most prominent is China’s unitary system. The central government’s delegation of substantive powers to tiers of local government has proven to be a thorn in its side when it comes to policy implementation and regulatory enforcement. In practice, supervision of these delegated powers is problematic and adds to a range of other issues that limit effective enforcement, such as corruption and the lack of transparency, accountability and public participation. Combined with inadequate legislation, institutional weaknesses are at the heart of the enforcement challenge and a key driver of the significant pollution incidents that persist across China.
For additional reading, Chapter 4 of the World Bank’s 2009 Report, “Addressing China’s Water Scarcity” provides a useful account of the institutional and other weaknesses that contribute significantly to the inadequate enforcement of China’s environmental and specifically, its water laws.