Command Without Control: The Case of China's Environmental Target System

Regulation & Governance, Forthcoming

23 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2015

Date Written: January 2, 2015


In the existing literature there is general agreement that the effectiveness and efficiency of command and control instruments versus market-based instruments is highly context specific. A country’s particular regulatory environment and state capacity, as well as the features of given environmental problems, play an important role in ascertaining what the "right" set of policy instruments for environmental management might be. This article examines how command and control instruments are used as an environmental enforcement mechanism in China’s authoritarian state. Based on extensive fieldwork, this paper shows that the reliance on binding environmental targets as the main domestic policy instrument in China has generated numerous undesirable consequences. While China’s target-based approach to implementation has incentivized local officials to strictly enforce environmental mandates, there are numerous shortcomings in the system. In particular, target rigidity, cyclical behaviour, poor data quality, and the absence of an independent monitoring agency have generated adverse effects and contribute to a yawning gap between regulatory goals and outcomes. The paper concludes that binding environmental targets as the main command-control instrument in China can be more accurately described as "command without control" as the target-setting central government does not exercise a high degree of control over implementation and monitoring processes. But command and control instruments can be suited for managing "first-generation" environmental problems and addressing environmental issues that have easily identifiable pollution sources and which are easy to verify.

Keywords: authoritarian environmentalism, China, command and control instruments, environmental policy implementation, regulation, targets

JEL Classification: O2, Q20, Q28, Q40, Q30, O53, K32, O18

Suggested Citation

Kostka, Genia, Command Without Control: The Case of China's Environmental Target System (January 2, 2015). Regulation & Governance, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Genia Kostka (Contact Author)

Freie Universität, Berlin ( email )

Boltzmannstr. 3
Berlin, 14195

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