Current Research and Working Papers


Gradualism, Experimentation, and Hierarchy in China’s Water Governance Reforms


Scott Moore[1] and Winston Yu[2]




China’s distinctive approach to economic reform, which combines centralized decision-making with local experimentation and a gradual refinement of policy, is well-described in the academic literature. However, the application of these principles to specific policy areas and economic sectors is less well-developed. This article asserts that the principles of gradualism and local experimentation help to explain China’s ambitious recent water governance reforms, which aim to transform the sector and help China meet significant challenges related to water scarcity, pollution, and flooding. However, while gradualism and experimentation have helped promote meaningful reforms to the use of economic mechanisms to promote more sustainable water use, a third principle, hierarchy, explains institutional reforms in the water sector. This principle may constrain the ability of China to address more complex and diffuse sustainable development challenges in the future.


Keywords: China; development; water; gradualism; local experimentation; climate change



[1] Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania Water Center,

[2] Principal Researcher and Senior Adviser, International Water Management Institute,