To achieve an efficient use and allocation of limited water resources and thus resolve increasing water use conflicts due to fast rising societal water demands, in 2000, the Chinese government started a management strategy of ‘Construction of a Water Saving Society (WSS)’. It is guided by the principle that socio-economic development should consider the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and focuses on institutional innovation, building on the water rights concept. This paper explores the innovation process during the transition towards WSS by investigating the development course of the innovation process during the transition towards WSS, and the adaptive capacity of the existing water management regime underlying the innovation process. Accordingly, an analysis framework consisting of three types of governance activities and factors determining a regime's adaptive capacity was developed, based on the theory of transition management and adaptive governance. The Tianjin and Zhangye WSS experiments were selected for a deep understanding of local innovations. It is revealed that co-evolution of all three types of governance activities that are claimed to be essential for transition has taken place. However, the current adaptive capacity of the regime still needs further enhancement to support the transition towards the desired WSS in China. Finally, some general insights are provided for policy innovations in other political economies.

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