Clean Air at What Cost? The Rise of “Blunt Force” Pollution Regulation in China

Denise van der Kamp, CSCC Postdoctoral Fellow

| CSCC Conference Room, Fisher-Bennett 345

Amidst rising discontent over pollution, the Chinese state faces a dilemma: In the absence of strong regulatory institutions, how can they enforce environmental policies that threaten local industrial interests? In other parts of the world, states have attempted to solve this problem through bottom-up “fire alarm” mechanisms—whereby leaders leverage citizen protests to expose egregious pollution violations. In China, however, the state has opted for a top-down “blunt force” solution, whereby the government forcibly shuts down entire polluting industries. Using satellite data on pollution and an original dataset on municipal enforcement measures, I demonstrate that blunt force regulation has successfully reduced pollution across China’s prefectural-level cities. However, this success is achieved at immense cost to local employment, revenue and growth rates. Using insights from interviews, I discuss how China’s particular combination of strong coercive power but weak bureaucratic oversight has pushed them towards this sub-optimal, blunt force solution. These findings imply that in authoritarian or weak institutional environments, states must pay a very high cost for cleaner air.