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

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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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Keywords: BUREAUCRATIC COMPLIANCE; CHINA; ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE; FRAGMENTED AUTHORITARIANISM; STATE-LOCAL RELATIONS

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2021

This article was made available online on September 21, 2020 as a Fast Track article with title: "Can Police Patrols Prevent Pollution? The Limits of Authoritarian Environmental Governance in China".

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  • Comparative Politics is an international journal that publishes scholarly articles devoted to the comparative analysis of political institutions and behavior. It was founded in 1968 to further the development of comparative political theory and the application of comparative theoretical analysis to the empirical investigation of political issues. Comparative Politics communicates new ideas and research findings to social scientists, scholars, and students, and is valued by experts in research organizations, foundations, and consulates throughout the world.
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