"Performative Governance." Revise & resubmission.
Can states legitimate themselves when they lack the capacity to meet citizen demands? This paper introduces the concept of “performative governance”—the state’s theatrical deployment of language, symbols, and gestures to project an image of good governance to citizens. I illustrate this concept in the realm of environmental politics in China: given the severity of environmental problems, administrative challenges to tackling them, and the resulting public outcry, can the state redeem itself in the eyes of its citizens, and if so how? Ethnographic evidence gathered from five months of participant observation at a local Environmental Protection Bureau reveals that bureaucrats engage in performative governance to improve public perceptions about government efforts to control pollution. Results of an original national survey show that acts of performative governance are surprisingly effective in securing public approval, even without necessarily satisfying citizen demands. The analysis reveals that in domains where state capacity is low but public scrutiny is high, governance is more likely to be performative than substantive.
"The Autocrat’s Moral-Legal Dilemma: Popular Morality, Legal Development, and Institutional Trust in Contemporary China" (with Jeffrey Javed). Revise & resubmission.
When authoritarian regimes develop their legal systems, they confront a dilemma: a legal infrastructure helps the regime govern more effectively, but the regime might lose support if it does not intervene to overturn unpopular legal decisions. We investigate this moral-legal dilemma in contemporary China, where the CCP has invested significant resources into building its legal system. Three case studies demonstrate that the Party-state selectively intervenes when court decisions conflict with popular justice. Two online survey experiments then test citizens’ reactions to court cases that conflict with popular morality. We find that individuals are more likely to be dismayed by legal rulings that conflict with popular moral beliefs, and that this disapproval correlates with lower levels of regime trust. Our findings suggest the need for more attention to the moral foundations of authoritarian rule.
"Red Memory: Nostalgia, Trauma, and Political Attitudes in China" (with Jeffrey Javed). Under review.
What explains the prevalence of nostalgia in post-communist societies? How do their memories of the political past relate to their views of present-day politics? We examine the formation of political memory and its relationship with individual attitudes toward contemporary government policies in China, focusing on Chinese citizens’ memories of the Maoist era (1949-1976). On the basis of 77 intensive semi-structured interviews in four cities, we find that Maoist nostalgia—where it exists—is a reaction to the disenchantment many Chinese citizens feel over the complex societal challenges resulting from China’s four-decade economic reform. However, Maoist nostalgia is best described as is “reflective” rather than “restorative”: people may believe that Chinese society has lost a sense of purpose under market capitalism, they do not miss the material hardship of the Maoist era, which they also vividly remember. In addition, we find that individual’s memories and assessments of the Maoist era are correlated with their attitudes towards contemporary public policies, such as Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. One particular subset of respondents, whom we call “nostalgic hardliners,” exhibit strong reflective nostalgia toward the Maoist era; they are more supportive of the current anti-corruption campaign and even more punitive measures to curb corruption. This research informs a broader discussion of how political memory influences how people evaluate contemporary politics.
"Selfish, Short-Sighted, but Informed: How Education Fosters Environmentalism" (with Michaël Aklin).
Public attitudes toward environmental issues in the developing world are poorly understood. Drawing on several existing surveys and an original survey experiment, we study the sources of individual environmental concern and demand for environmental policy outside of OECD countries. We begin by demonstrating strong evidence that an individual's level of formal education is a crucial predictor of their environmental concern. We further use an original and nationally representative survey fielded in China to test three mechanisms that could causally link education to environmentalism: knowledge, altruism, and longer time horizon. We find most support for the knowledge channel. Our findings suggest that environmental messages that speak to the altruistic and future-oriented sides of mankind might be less effective than messages that more directly speak to individuals' immediate self interest.
"Power to the Powerless: Credible Communication in the Quotidian Use of Authoritarian Institutions" (with William Spaniel). Under review.
Authoritarian regimes often develop "input institutions” to gather information on societal preferences. However, these institutions face two underlying challenges. First, more information does not mean good information; citizens may have incentives to misrepresent their preferences. Second, some input institutions can also be “coordination goods” that increase citizens’ capacity and willingness to organize and thus enhance their bargaining power vis-`a-vis the state. What, then, is the logic of permitting them? We develop a model to investigate the trade-off between information and power in authoritarian input institutions. We show that the underlying power transfer through input institutions makes otherwise non-credible state-society communication credible. Empirical evidence from East Germany, contemporary China, and contemporary Vietnam illustrates how the balance of power between state and society predicts when and why the regimes promote input institutions.