Governance by Uncertainty: Assessing the Impact of Ad Hoc Enforcement in China

Project: Research

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This project examines a key dilemma facing the developing world: How can governments enforce critical social and environmental policies, despite weak control over their bureaucracy? Traditionally, scholars have emphasized the need for rational, disciplined and meritocratic bureaucracies to overcome enforcement problems and prevent corruption (Bates 1981, Evans and Rauch 1999, Skocpol 1985). In recent years, China seems to be moving in the opposite direction, pursuing a combination of ad hoc campaigns, internal orders, and high-tech surveillance mechanisms to force through costly pollution control policies. This project assesses the impact of ad hoc governance on policy enforcement in China. Specifically, it explores the role of uncertainty as a method of bureaucratic control in weak institutional environments. Political scientists have long identified the use of uncertainty (in the form of unclear laws and unexplained arrests) as a low cost way for authoritarian regimes to scare citizens into self-policing (Crozier 1964, Scott 1990, O’Brien and Stern 2011). Based on recent interviews with local officials in China, I propose that the same strategy is being used within the Chinese state, to discipline bureaucrats into compliance. We see this in the rise of sudden campaigns (such as the anti-corruption campaign) or the use of impromptu commands (such the 2017 winter coal stove ban) to direct and control local bureaucrats’ behaviour. Focusing on recent pollution control campaigns, I will assess how “governance by uncertainty” has altered bureaucratic incentives to enforce environmental policies. Through a combination of interviews, case studies, and quantitative analysis of original data, I will evaluate whether the erosion of clear performance targets and stable reward mechanisms has strengthened or weakened local officials’ responsiveness to central leaders in China. Studies of Chinese politics have previously highlighted this flexible, ad hoc nature of party governance in China (Fewsmith 2011, Perry and Heilmann 2011, Zhi and Pearson 2017). However, these theories predict that ad hoc governance will make the regime more adaptable, because it encourages local officials to experiment with new tactics to accommodate limited institutional and fiscal resources. In contrast, this project builds on my earlier dissertation research to propose that uncertainty has made local officials more cautious, more conservative, and less capable of resolving China’s long-term policy challenges. Findings from this project will therefore contribute to broader scholarly debates on the limits of effective authoritarian governance, and may also challenge expectations that China’s party governance is becoming more routinized, law-based and resilient (Nathan 2003).   


Project number9048143
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/09/1916/09/21