Environmental Management

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 388-410

First online:

Effective Regulations with Little Effect? The Antecedents of the Perceptions of Environmental Officials on Enforcement Effectiveness in China

  • Carlos Wing-Hung LoAffiliated withDepartment of Management and Marketing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Email author 
  • , Gerald E. FryxellAffiliated withChina Europe International Business School (CEIBS)
  • , Wilson Wai-Ho WongAffiliated withDepartment of Government and Public Administration, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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Enforcement gaps are an especially vexing problem in China due to pervasive “pro-growth” local government priorities, the weak administrative capacity of environmental agencies themselves, and relatively weak levels of societal support for a cleaner environment. This study seeks to examine this problem from the perspective of the local enforcement officials by empirically examining the relationships between these and other influences on their perceptions of enforcement effectiveness. Using samples of enforcement officials from the fast-growing cities of Chengdu, Dalian, and Guangzhou, this study finds that many of the more commonly cited problems related to regulatory enforcement were not as influential in accounting for variations in perceptions of enforcement effectiveness than the current literature might suggest. Moreover, this study also finds that the pattern of influences varies greatly across jurisdictions, with only the officials’ belief in the legitimacy of the governments’ policies being significant in all three samples. Strong influences on perceptions of enforcement effectiveness in two of the three samples include the environmental values of enforcement officials, their perceptions of organizational capacity for enforcement, and their assessment of government support for environmental protection. Although government support was found to be a strong predictor of enforcement effectiveness in two of the three samples, the influence of societal support had a somewhat mixed and more complicated effect. In addition, this study suggests that further improvements in enforcement effectiveness may be possible by cultivating or selecting enforcement officials with strong environmental values and beliefs in the legitimacy of the government’s environmental policy to take charge of enforcement. Because it is generally accepted that local environmental protection bureaus are generally upgrading their organizational capacity for improvement as the result of increasing central government support for environmental protection and institutional restructuring, and because environmental awareness in China is growing, this study suggests that some incremental progress is likely in China’s efforts to close the enforcement gap. Unfortunately, such improvements are likely to be masked by the steep trajectory of economic growth, the narrow scope of regulatory control (i.e., with scant attention paid to nonindustrial sources), and the migration of industrial pollution to rural areas.


Enforcement gap Enforcement effectiveness China Environmental values Environmental officials Environmental protection bureau Environmental policy