China’s Commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals: An Analysis of Push and Pull Factors and Implementation Challenges


This paper explains why China has developed ambitious policies, targets and projects for sustainable development and has become a promoter of the United Nations Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Based on analysis of policy documents, interviews and talks with experts, it underpins the relevance of multi-stakeholder contributions and collaborative governance arrangements for China’s green transition, challenging the recently emerging criticism on “orthodox Western environmental discourse” discussed in this journal. Following an introduction and discussion on the relevance of the SDGs, it engages in an analysis of push and pull factors of China’s sustainable development agenda. Driving factors at domestic level tie well into dynamics at international level, for example in the field of China’s aspiration for leadership in the field of green technologies. China is combining command-and-control, market-based and awareness raising measures to promote the sustainability transition. The central government draws on experience gathered at the local level in the context of emission trading, low-carbon and smart city development. Next to government agencies, the private sector and many academics as well as nonprofit actors are involved in the process of disseminating and scaling-up good practices. The main challenges of China's sustainability transition consist of balancing economic, social and environmental objectives in a country with huge economic disparities, addressing capacity building at local level and bringing down double-digit rates of curtailment of renewable energies. China’s commitment to the sustainability agenda clearly has the potential to raise its image and soft power, in particular if it remains committed to global agreements and contributions from a variety of stakeholders at subnational, national and global level.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Discussions on the concepts of sustainable development and ecological civilisation with an international group of senior and junior researchers based on a key note by Coraline Goron of the China Centre of Oxford University. The discussion took place at the School of Marxism of Peking University on March 15, 2018.

  2. 2.

    “We will reform the management system for science and technology, and develop a market oriented system for technological innovation in which enterprises are the main players and synergy is created through the joint efforts of enterprises, universities, research institutes. We will support innovation by small and medium-size enterprises…” (Xinhua 2017: Xi Jinping’s Report at the 19 Party Congress).

  3. 3.

    Comparative research on collaborative governance has taught us that the most commonly asserted and widely accepted justification for collaborative governance is not augmenting overall resources but rather the private sector’s advantage in productivity (Donahue and Zeckhauser 2011).

  4. 4.

    The concept of triangulation is borrowed from navigational and land surveying techniques that determine a single point in space with the convergence of measurements taken from two other distinct points (Rothbauer 2008).

  5. 5.

    The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks countries’ performance on high-priority environmental issues in two areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems and provides scores in nine Issue Categories. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) (2017) was created with the aim to shape data-driven environmental policy-making, see

  6. 6.

    The principle was written into Article 4 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992. Under this principle, developed countries should take the lead in emission reduction and provide support in terms of finance and technology to developing countries, while developing countries should apply this financial and technological support to actions designed to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Notwithstanding, economic and social development and poverty eradication remain the first and overriding priorities for the developing world.

  7. 7.

    The BRICS Development Bank, is a multilateral development bank established by the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

  8. 8.

    In the case of Germany, the organisation of the G 20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017 was a pull factor for revisiting the role of China in living up to global agreements on sustainable transformations and climate policies. MERICS, the leading German think tank on China affairs that is otherwise not much focused on environmental and climate policies took the opportunity to organise a conference on “Joining Forces in Global Climate Policy” in Berlin 10 days ahead of the Hamburg summit. “Germany and China should use the G20 summit in Hamburg to advance the global climate policy agenda”. This was the message of a Chinese–German conference, whose participants discussed how to keep up the international momentum after US President Donald Trump had announced his country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

  9. 9.

    Governments, private sectors, civil society and international organisations should foster a sense of community of shared interests and establish an all-round partnership by playing their respective roles in global development cooperation (Government of China 2016a, b: National Plan on Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 10).

  10. 10.

    For an analysis of Chinese discourses related to the concept of Sustainable Development, see Kuhn (2016a, b).

  11. 11.

    “Britain to have just one remaining coal pit after UK Coal announces closures”. 2 April 2014.

  12. 12.

    The music album Every Valley from the British art rock band Public Service Broadcasting is based on the history of the mining industry in Wales. It tells about the rise and decline of the country's coal industry and miners' strike play a huge role in the lyrics of the album.

  13. 13.

    China Daily 24 March 2017: “Southern cities beat northern region in GDP growth rate”.

  14. 14.

    Scholars of environmental governance in China seem to agree that China’s decentralised administrative structure is ill-suited to address the nation’s growing environmental challenges (Kostka and Nahm 2017:2 with reference to Moir and Carter 2006; Qi et al. 2008; Kostka and Mol 2013; Ran 2013; Qi and Zhang 2014).


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Kuhn, B.M. China’s Commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals: An Analysis of Push and Pull Factors and Implementation Challenges. Chin. Polit. Sci. Rev. 3, 359–388 (2018).

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  • Sustainable development in China
  • Sustainable development goals
  • Ecological civilisation
  • Collaborative governance
  • Multi-stakeholder contributions