Governing urban water flows in China

L. Zhong

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


China has been witnessing an unprecedented period of continuous high economic growth during the past three decades. But this has been paralleled by severe environmental challenges, of which water problems are of key importance. This thesis addresses the urban water challenges of contemporary China, by focusing especially on the institutional traditions and innovations in Chinese water policies and governance, basically for two additional reasons. First, the large majority of studies regarding China’s urban water sector have focused on technological innovations and – to a lesser extent – the economic costs, leaving institutional dimensions often unaddressed. This thesis is one of the first to look more systematically into several institutional innovations that take place in contemporary urban water governance around China. Second, China’s water problems are closely linked to many societal questions and debates that characterise current transitional China, such as the equal distribution of costs and benefits in a market economy, democracy and participation, effective governance and the relation between state and market. Our institutional analyses aim to focus exactly on the linkage between water challenges and these other main developments. Inspired by a series of theoretical considerations in environmental sociology, this thesis, on the one hand, develops an Ecological Modernization-based theoretical framework for studying institutional transformations of China’s urban water sector. As such, it interprets the current institutional innovations as a (potential) trend of ecological modernization in China. On the other hand, this thesis provides implications for the development of a more China-specified Ecological Modernization theory. And as such it contributes to the reframing of Ecological Modernization theory to make it relevant beyond western Europe. Traditionally, the Chinese state had a monopoly in managing and arranging the urban water sector, both in terms of water supply and waste water treatment. Along with the Chinese economic reforms since the 1980s and its movement from a centrally planned economy towards a market-based economy, this state monopoly is changing dramatically. This change can be labelled the modernization of urban water governance. Using an Ecological Modernization perspective, this thesis investigates three major environmental-induced institutional innovations of Chinese urban water sector, thereby focusing on the changing roles of and relations between the state, economic actors and civil society. First, China has gradually increased attention to, research on and experiments with the application of economic instruments, as well as the involvement of the private sector, in urban water management. Although we seem to be at only an early stage of both innovations, which prevents us from drawing any final conclusion regarding their impacts on the Chinese water sector, it has become clear that the traditional full governmental provision of water services has changed dramatically in China. Economic and market dynamics are increasingly playing important roles; prices of water and waste water treatment have increased dramatically, subsidies are more and more abandoned (with some exceptions for vulnerable groups and crucial state functions), and economic actors appear on the stage of policy implementation and sometimes even policy formulation. While in principle many of these innovations seem to contribute to more efficient and effective urban water provision, much room for improvement remains, also because of the current lack of attention to institutional design by the Chinese authorities. Second, the Chinese state is redefining the state-market relations within the urban water sector in order to deal with – among others - the environmental dimensions of water services (such as natural resource protection, efficient infrastructure, and pollution control). Not only the liberalization and commercialization of conventional governmental water utilities but also the emergence and spread of private sector involvement in water service provision contribute to new roles and responsibilities of state and market actors, and to new modes of urban water governance. Various models of public-private partnerships are being tried and implemented across China, where a (potential) market is being formulated for capital raising and financing, constructing infrastructure and facilities, and executing service provisions. This comes along with debates and struggle over tasks and responsibilities left for the state, both at the national and the local level. And with that also more fundamental debates on the nature of water, ranging between a public good and a private good.  Thirdly, the new institutional arrangement of public hearings for setting water tariffs provides evidence that civil society starts to become involved in governmental decision-making processes, although this new institution has a different outlook and performance from public hearings developed in Western countries. Our investigations into price public hearings in various Chinese cities witness that the Chinese government seems to be moving towards to a trend of more open, transparent and accountable governance, although the impact of these public hearings is still controversial and differs from city to city. Issues of democracy and equity are constantly debated and defined in the practical operationalization of these institutional arrangements. Price public hearings do not stand on its own. This tendency of further civil society involvement can also be found in other developments, such as the increasing room for maneuver for NGOs (e.g. with respect to major water issues such as dams) and innovations in the new Environmental Impact Assessment law. In sum, this thesis on the one side has provided evidences that contemporary China is witnessing at least experiments with a modernization of water governance that can be understood in terms of ecological modernization. For instance, decentralization, the involvement of various non-state actors, further reform of state-market relations, increasing use of economic and market dynamics, and a wider contribution of civil society and public participation are typical developments that reflect an ecological modernization agenda and theory. On the other side, this thesis shows differences between what can be labeled a Western style Ecological Modernization framework and the actual practice of urban water governance reform in China, due to the different economic, political and societal variables in China. This implies the need for specifying where Western style ecological modernization practices differ from what we can expect in state-in-transition, and arguable also the need for a Chinese style Ecological Modernization theory. This thesis does not attempt to formulate such a theory, but does provide some of the ingredients and building stones for that.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
Award date17 Dec 2007
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085048312
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • water management
  • institutions
  • china
  • innovations
  • transformation
  • administration
  • natural resources
  • urban areas
  • decision making
  • institutional economics
  • governance

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