Blunt force regulation and bureaucratic control : Understanding China's war on pollution

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-209
Journal / PublicationGovernance
Issue number1
Online published4 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


In the past decade, China has increasingly resorted to top-down, “blunt force” solutions to environmental problems; officials forcibly shutter or destroy factories to reduce pollution, at immense cost to local growth and employment. Why would a high capacity state like China resort to such a costly method of pollution control? I argue that blunt force enforcement is targeted at overcoming principal-agent problems in the bureaucracy. When institutions are too weak to hold bureaucrats accountable, political leaders increase oversight by drastically reducing the number of steps and resources required to produce a regulatory outcome—resulting in blunt force measures. I illustrate this logic through case studies from China’s multi-year war on pollution. Using original data on blunt force measures, I then show how localities with lower bureaucratic compliance face greater blunt force pollution enforcement. These findings reveal that when bureaucratic accountability is weak, states pay a very high cost for cleaner air.

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