Can Police Patrols Prevent Pollution? The Limits of Authoritarian Environmental Governance in China

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

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403-433
Journal / PublicationComparative Politics
Issue number3
Online published21 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


China’s high-profile anti-pollution campaigns have fueled theories of authoritarian environmental efficiency. In a regime where bureaucrats are sensitive to top-down scrutiny, central campaigns are expected to be powerful tool for reducing pollution. Focusing on China’s nationwide pollution inspections campaign, I assess these claims of authoritarian efficiency. I find that central inspections (or “police patrols”) have no discernable impact on air pollution. I argue that inspections were ineffective because environmental enforcement requires a degree of sustained scrutiny that one-off campaigns cannot provide. The deterrent effect of inspections is also undercut by the regime’s ambivalence towards independent courts and unsupervised public participation. These findings suggest that China’s obstacles to pollution enforcement may be greater than anticipated, and theories of authoritarian efficiency overlook gaps in authoritarian state capacity.

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