"Performative Governance." World Politics 72 (4): 1-32. DOI:
The state often struggles to meet citizens’ demands but confronts strong public pressure to do so. What does the state do when public expectations exceed its actual governing capacity? This study shows that the state can respond by engaging in “performative governance” — the theatrical deployment of language, symbols, and gestures to foster an impression of good governance among citizens. Performative governance should be distinguished from other types of state behavior, such as inertia, paternalism, and the substantive satisfaction of citizen demands. I illustrate this concept in the realm of environmental governance in China: given the severity of its environmental pollution, resulting public outcry, and logistical and political challenges to solving pollution problems, how can the state redeem itself? Ethnographic evidence from participant observation at a municipal Environmental Protection Bureau reveals that when bureaucrats are confronted with the dual burdens of low state capacity and high public scrutiny, they engage in performative governance to assuage citizen complaints. This study calls attention to the double-meaning of “performance” in political contexts, and the essential distinction between the substantive and the theatrical.
"The Autocrat’s Moral-Legal Dilemma: Popular Morality and Legal Institutionalization in China" (with Jeffrey Javed). Forthcoming. Comparative Political Studies.
Authoritarian regimes sometimes professionalize their legal systems to govern more effectively. Yet when quasi-autonomous courts rule in conflict with popular conceptions of right and wrong — popular morality— it might threaten citizens’ trust in the regime. We use the case of contemporary China to investigate this "moral-legal dilemma" — the competing needs of legal development and the satisfaction of popular justice concerns. Four case studies demonstrate that when court rulings conflict with popular morality, the party-state selectively alters decisions, so long as intervention does not significantly jeopardize the integrity of the legal system. Two online survey experiments then assess citizens’ reactions to moral-legal conflict in court rulings. We find that people are more likely to experience “moral dissonance” when legal decisions conflict with popular morality. We do not find that moral-legal conflict in court rulings significantly undermines individuals’ trust in the regime. Our analysis underscores the need for more attention to the moral foundations of authoritarian rule.