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Clean Air at What Cost? The Rise of Blunt Force Pollution Regulation in China


In weak institutional environments, how can political leaders push through policies that challenge powerful local interests? When states use heavy-handed measures to enforce these policies, is it a sign of strength, or of weakness? This dissertation addresses these questions through examining the puzzle of China’s “blunt force” approach to regulating polluters.

In China, and in much of the developing world, attempts to regulate pollution are frequently undermined by corrupt bureaucrats and powerful local businesses. While most states try to solve these problems through bottom-up ‘fire alarm’ mechanisms—where protests help expose egregious violations—China has resorted to a top-down, ‘blunt force’ solution, where pollution is reduced by forcibly shutting down entire industries. Quantitative analysis demonstrates that blunt force regulation has successfully reduced pollution across China’s cities, but case studies show that it comes at immense cost to local employment, revenue and growth rates. Why would a state capable of delivering decades of high growth, censoring the internet, and controlling birth rates, have to resort to such an unsophisticated, costly method of pollution control?

I argue that blunt force regulation is a product of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese state. China’s ability to command bureaucrats to instantly close down polluters, and then silence opposition from workers and entrepreneurs, would earn it the label of ‘strong’ state in the eyes of its developing country peers. Yet China has been driven to these strong measures, not by choice, but because it cannot incentivize bureaucrats to apply a constant pressure on polluters, and because it fears the public accountability mechanisms that non-authoritarian states draw on to police their bureaucrats. Instead, the leadership must rely on extreme, one-off interventions that require only temporary bureaucratic compliance to reduce pollution. That China can push through such costly measures is a sign of its strength. That they are driven to such measures is a sign of their weakness.

My dissertation develops this argument in three stages. First, through quantitative analysis of original data, I demonstrate that blunt force regulation has become one of the most widespread and important means for systematically reducing pollution in China’s cities. This makes it a phenomenon worthy of explanation. Second, using insights from interviews with national, provincial and local officials, I show how the state’s struggle to regulate polluters through weak courts and a porous bureaucracy prompted a turn to more “direct” blunt force methods. Finally, using descriptive statistics and two structured case studies, I show how the state was able to contain the political risks of blunt force measures by disproportionately targeting small, weak firms and informal, transient labor. The success of this strategy is a testament to the depth of China’s control over society. However, the inefficiency of this strategy—where the biggest polluters were left largely unscathed—highlights the compromises the regime must make to sustain its rule. In sum, this three-part argument demonstrates how blunt force regulation was a sub-optimal solution arising from China’s combination of state strengths and weaknesses.

Examples of blunt force regulation can also be found in Russia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia: states engage in short term solutions to regulatory problems that seem rash, heavy-handed, and counter to leaders’ political interests. This dissertation offers a theory for why these measures might be rational in light of the specific institutional challenges of authoritarian states, or of weakly institutionalized states. In so doing, it offers fresh understanding on what it means to be a strong or weak state.

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