The Performative State: Public Opinion, Political Pageantry, and Environmental Governance in China


Chapter 1:  Introduction

Can states legitimate themselves without giving citizens what they demand? This book examines states' legitimation of power through "performative governance," defined as the theatrical deployment of language, symbols, and gestures to project an image of good governance to citizens. In particular, it examines a challenging policy issue in an authoritarian regime: environmental governance in China. Given the severity of environmental problems, the associated outcry, and administrative challenges, can the state redeem itself in the eyes of the citizens, and if so how? The introductory chapter presents my two-step theory. First, under identifiable conditions, the state uses performative governance to shape public perceptions. Second, performative governance is effective at sustaining public approval, at least in the short term. The rest of the chapter discusses the data and methods, and provides an overview of the book.

Chapter 2:  Environment and the State: Past and Present

While China is by no means unique in its poor environmental record, the sheer scale of environmental transformation warrants an inquiry into the forces behind it. This chapter explores the history of environmental degradation and governance in imperial modern, and contemporary China. It draws on important scholarship on China’s environmental history to show that environmental degradation is not unique to the reform era; from time immemorial, environmental protection, compared to other projects of the state, has been one of inertia. It further describes the evolution of the environmental state from its birth in the 1970s to its maturation today, providing insights into a modern bureaucracy’s old woes and new banes.

Chapter 3:  Keeping the State: Capacity and Scrutiny

How do we know when the state is performative? This chapter argues that two conditions give rise to performative governance: weak administrative capacity and strong public scrutiny. I develop a general typology of state-bureaucratic behavior: inert (capacity and scrutiny are both weak), autonomous (strong capacity and weak scrutiny), performative (weak capacity and strong scrutiny), and substantive (capacity and scrutiny are both strong). I illustrate this typology with examples within and outside of China. I further demonstrate how the Chinese environmental bureaucracy has evolved from “inert” to “performative” with rising public scrutiny, and is on its way to “substantive” with rising capacity.

Chapter 4:  Seeing like a State: The Art of Face Work

This chapter presents a critical case study of performative governance at work, using ethnographic data gathered from five months of participant observation at a municipal EPB in China. The ethnographic participation research approach sheds light on the inner workings of a bureaucracy and the logic behind agents’ seemingly irrational behavior. I use both the interpretive method and process tracing to demonstrate that for a weak bureaucracy under strong public scrutiny like the Chinese EPB, an agency’s formal functions must take a back seat while it fights for the survival of its public image, which is linked to the career security of its agents.

Chapter 5:  Seeing the State: Face Work and Public Opinion

How can the environmental state shape public opinion? In this chapter, I argue that it does so through the media, especially the local media. Here I test the hypothesis that performative governance is effective at securing public approval utilizing an original survey of 6,164 residents in 30 Chinese cities and an innovative measure of performative governance in the local media. I find that citizens in cities with higher levels of performative governance are more satisfied with local environmental governance, all else being equal.

Chapter 6:  Shaming the State: The Art of Face Loss

Why are people convinced by performative governance? This chapter further investigates the scope conditions for performative governance to be effective at shaping public opinion. I find that the information environment determines individuals’ receptivity to performative governance tactics. As the information environment becomes more diverse, the public has more channels through which to discover discrepancies between the performative and the substantive; such discrepancies upset the public. To illustrate the crucial role of the information environment, I conduct a controlled comparison between Vietnam and China: two “most similar” political systems. After major water crises, officials in both countries engaged in performative governance: they went swimming in local rivers to signal their responsiveness. However, this strategy did not work as well in Vietnam as it did in China. Because of the Vietnamese government’s lack of control over social media, the public organized on Facebook to pressure officials for substantive action.

Chapter 7:  Political Pageantry in the New Age

Performative governance is neither new nor unique to China. The concluding chapter discusses this strategy in both historical and comparative perspectives. Indeed, every politician in history has specialized in political pageantry. However, the rapid evolution of the information environment has opened up a new world of political process for both democracies and autocracies. The rise of the Internet and social media have introduced diverse ways for authorities to manipulate mass opinion, as well as new channels of information and communication through which the public may identify discrepancies in official behavior and intentions. We have entered a new age of political communication in which public opinion is predominantly shaped by the authorities’ ability to grab attention and favorability on a virtual stage.   

Copyright @ 2017 Iza Ding.  All rights reserved.