Topically, my research focuses on two interconnected issues that are becoming more challenging and consequential than ever: first, environmental and climate politics and policy; and second, the politics of democracy and autocracy. These two parallel research agendas grew out of my doctoral dissertation and 2022 Cornell University Press book The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China. I use a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods in my research, such as ethnography, experiments, and surveys. 



Graham Beattie, Iza Ding, and Andrea La Nauze. 2022. "Is There an Energy Efficiency Gap in China? Evidence from an Information Experiment." Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 115: 102713.

We provide evidence of an energy efficiency gap in China. Using an incentivized field experiment, we document that providing information to consumers on the energy costs of lightbulbs significantly increases their willingness to pay for energy-efficient bulbs. Our experimental design allows us to rule out that this effect is driven by either biased beliefs or the salience of the monetary or environmental costs of lightbulbs. We argue consumers guess that energy-efficient products will save them money; however, because they are not confident in their guess, they underinvest in energy efficiency. Information reduces this uncertainty.

Iza Ding. 2020. "Performative Governance." World Politics 72 (4): 1-32.

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.


Iza Ding. 2020. “The Politics of Pollution Emissions Trading in China,” in Ashley Esarey, Mary Alice Haddad, Joanna Lewis and Stevan Harrell eds. Greening East Asia: The Rise of the Eco-Developmental State. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

This chapter traces the slow yet persistent rolling out of China's cap-and-trade programs. It shows that poorly aligned local incentives, combined with local governments’ need to fulfill policy targets, have created a situation in which emissions trading often serves as “policy theater,” whereby local authorities recruit key stakeholders to act out "market mechanisms" in order to convince key audiences of the policy's effectiveness.

Michaël Aklin and Iza Ding. "Selfish, Short-sighted, but Informed: How Education Fosters Environmentalism." Under Review.

Does education foster environmentalism? If so, how? We begin by using multiple surveys to demonstrate strong evidence that an individual’s level of formal education is a crucial predictor of their environmental concern and demand for pro-environmental policy. Individuals with college education are 9 percent more likely to prioritize the environment over growth than people without college education. This effect climbs to 15 percent in China, the world’s largest emerging economy. We then field an original, nationally representative survey experiment in China to test three mechanisms that might causally link education to environmentalism: knowledge, altruism, and longer time horizons. We find the strongest support for the knowledge channel. Our findings suggest that environmental messaging that appeals to the altruistic and future-oriented sides of mankind might be less effective than messages that improve individuals’ knowledge of how environmental damage affects their immediate self-interest.

Iza Ding and Denise van der Kamp. "High Maintenance or Low Maintenance? Environmental Policy Implementation in China." In preparation for submission.

Research on policy implementation has primarily focused on institutional capacity and political will in explaining policy success, while giving less attention to the details of policy design. We argue that, when explaining unevenness in policy outcomes, the devil is in the details. Comparing four environmental policies in China—cap and trade, environmental tax, Coal-to-Gas, and pollution penalty—we find that policy efficacy can be explained by the costs associated with their “startup” and “maintenance.” Maintenance costs, in particular, decisively determine whether a policy will be successfully implemented in the long run.


Iza Ding and Jeffrey Javed. 2021. "The Autocrat’s Moral-Legal Dilemma: Popular Morality and Legal Institutions in China." Comparative Political Studies 54 (6): 989-1022. 

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.

Iza Ding and Dan Slater. 2021. "Democratic Decoupling." Democratization 28 (1): 63-80.

Democratic backsliding does not necessarily see all democratic institutions erode in parallel fashion. This article analyses contemporary democratic backsliding through the lens of institutional change, as a process of “democratic decoupling”, in which a systematic gap opens up between the constitutive features of liberal democracy. Specifically, we focus on the worldwide decoupling between electoral quality and rights protections over the past decade. Using global data from the V-Dem project, we establish that elections are improving and rights are retracting in the same time period, and in many of the same cases. We offer several illustrative examples from Asia of illiberal juggernauts who have ridden the waves of free and fair elections to do great damage to rights protections, focusing primarily on Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP in the world’s largest democracy, India.

Iza Ding, Dan Slater, and Huseyin Zengin. 2021. “Populism and the Past: Restoring, Redeeming, and Retaining the Nation.Studies in Comparative International Development 56 (2): 148-169. 

Populism and nationalism have been described as major threats to democracy. But ambiguities linger over their conceptual boundaries and overlaps. This article develops a typology of nationalist narratives to historically situate the recent global rise of populist nationalism. Specifically, we identify three common types of historical experience with empire that have shaped contemporary expressions of nationalism by populist leaders: imperial power, where a nation’s forerunner was the leading polity in a regional or global empire; imperial subject, where a nation was ruled and dominated by an imperial power; and imperial holdout, where a nation battled off imperial encroachments with relative success. Collective memories of these divergent imperial experiences are associated with three distinct types of nationalist narratives today: restorative nationalism in former imperial powers, redemptive nationalism in former imperial subjects, and retentive nationalism in former imperial holdouts. We illustrate this typology in three major cases of 21st-century populism: Turkey under Erdogan, the Philippines under Duterte, and Thailand under Thaksin. We tentatively contend that restorative nationalism is an especially likely conduit for greater political disruptions at home and abroad.

Iza Ding and Mike Thompson-Brusstar. 2021. “The Anti-Bureaucratic Ghost in China's Bureaucratic Machine.” China Quarterly.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ideology, rooted in its foundational struggles, explicitly denounces “bureaucratism” as an intrinsic ailment of bureaucracy. Yet while the revolutionary Party has blasted bureaucratism, its revolutionary regime has had to find a way to coexist with bureaucracy as a requisite for effective governance. An anti-bureaucratic ghost thus dwells in the machinery of China’s bureaucratic state. We analyse the CCP’s anti-bureaucratism through two steps. First, we engage in a historical analysis of the Party’s anti-bureaucratic ideology, teasing out its substance and emphasizing its roots in and departures from European Marxism and Leninism. Second, we trace both the continuity and evolution in the Party’s anti-bureaucratic rhetoric, taking an interactive approach that combines close reading with computational analysis of the entire corpus of the People’s Daily (1947–2020). We find striking endurance as well as subtle shifts in the substance of the CCP’s anti-bureaucratic ideology.

Iza Ding and Marek Hlavac. 2017. “‘Right’ Choice: Restorative Nationalism and Right-Wing Populism in Central and Eastern Europe.” Chinese Political Science Review 2: 427-444.

What are the facilitating conditions for right-wing populism? This paper explores the moral and nationalist foundations of right-wing populist appeal. Using European Social Survey data, we demonstrate that voting for right-wing populist parties is not associated with anti-elite, anti-establishment sentiment, but instead with moral beliefs in the cultural purity of nationhood and its centrality to the preservation of national identity, which we call restorative nationalism. We draw on qualitative data from Central and Eastern Europe to demonstrate how narratives of restorative nationalism can bolster right-wing populist politicians.