State power in China: more "Parks and Rec" than command and control?

On the last episode of the podcast, Mark talked with two experts regarding the Inflation Reduction Act, and the political and logistical challenges of accelerating a ‘Green Transition’ in the US. 

Which makes for an interesting comparison to our topic today.

Because these days, when people want to critique how slow and ineffective the US government can be, they often compare it to another country – one that we tell ourselves is where big government projects happen faster and better than almost anywhere: China.

But as Iza Ding, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, explains to Mark on this episode, China’s government might not be quite as dominant and proficient as we think. And nowhere is this more clear than at the local level, as Iza explores in her recent book, “The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China.”

Even though the book focuses on aspects of environmental governance like conservation and pollution mitigation, her conclusions are far-reaching. Primarily, the idea that even so-called strong states have weaknesses, and when they are asked to address them, they often ‘perform’ the task of governing in informative and surprising ways. 

Learn more about and purchase Iza Ding's book "The Performative State: Public Scrutiny and Environmental Governance in China".

Learn more about other podcasts from the Watson Institute. 


MARK BLYTH: From the Rhodes Center for International Finance and Economics at Brown University, this is the Rhodes Center Podcast. I'm the director of the Rhodes Center and your host, Mark Blyth. On the last episode of this podcast, I talked with two experts regarding the Inflation Reduction Act, and the political and logistical challenges of accelerating a quote unquote "green transition" in the United States.

This makes for an interesting comparison to our topic today. Because these days, when people critique how slow and ineffective the United States government can be, they often compare it to another country. One that we always tell ourselves as we are big government, projects happen faster and better than almost anywhere, yes, in China.

But as my guest today, Iza Ding explains in this episode, China's government might not be quite as dominant and proficient as we think. And nowhere is this more clear than at the local level, as Iza explores in her recent book, The Performative State. She focuses in her book on environmental governance, conservation, pollution abatement, et cetera.

But her conclusions are far reaching that even in so-called strong states, there are weaknesses. And when those states are asked to address them, they perform their competencies rather than deliver. And they perform in very surprising and odd ways. Here's my conversation with Iza.


So Iza, welcome to Brown and welcome to the podcast.

IZA DING: Thank you.

MARK BLYTH: So let's talk about China and environment or governance, which is the subject of your book. And you gave us this great talk today. When we tend to think of China in general, at least most people I suppose who are not China experts, we think of it as being this big, strong, powerful state.

Let's think about an environmental governance example. You're trying to ban diesel cars and any western democracy. You've got one lobby trying to do it. Three other lobbies trying to stop it. You got motorists who are up in arms. And we have this picture of China, where it's the central government says, that's it. As of next Tuesday, no diesel cars.

And I know I'm exaggerating, but some version of command and control where they can really get things done. What's fascinating about your work is you show that when you get down to the grassroots level, the people who actually do environmental enforcement, that's not what's going on at all. What's going on is what you call performative governance rather than substantive governance. What is that? Give us an overview as to what you're getting at?

IZA DING: Sure So can I just start with this observation that China has a strong state. So its indeed the case that when we think about the Chinese state, we think of this as strong. And what I would say is that is a perception. It really depends on how we measure state capacity.

So if we look at GDP per capita as the measurement, then China ceases to be a strong state. And I think Sheena Greitens. Work has also shown that if we're looking at police spending per capita, China's spending is actually a lot lower than places like the United States and Russia, which is why in my book, I'm really trying to look at capacity in relative terms. And then trying to look at, like you said, street level bureaucrats. And then to show that, at least in the realm of environmental governance, state capacity is low.

But because pollution was such a big problem at least during the period of this study and citizens were really upset about it. So what this book argues is that under the conditions of low state capacity and high public scrutiny, what the state did, what these street level bureaucrats did was performative governance, which is basically the symbolic display of good governance, of verbal, gestural symbols of good governance.

MARK BLYTH: OK, let's put some color into that because you've got some great examples in the book. So one of them was the story about this guy who did quite well in business. He jumped in a car with a bunch of his friends. He wanted to take them back to his village. And he got there. And he was regaling them with tales of how it was this wonderful halcyon paradise.

And you could swim in the river. And there were ducks everywhere. And he got there and it was just basically industrial effluent in terrible, terrible conditions. And he ended up saying to the local EPA chief, I will pay $30,000, 30 US for you to swim in this. And that created a bit of a media storm. And to cut a long story short, much later what happened was loads of these bureaucrats end up stripping off on a Sunday when it's raining and going for a swim.

And essentially, they perform that the river is clean, but the thing is they're swimming in a river that isn't really that dirty, that river is still very, very dirty. How do we make sense of this? I mean, it's clearly a performance, right? But how should we as a social scientist think about this as a mode of governance?

IZA DING: That's a great question. How do we think about this as social scientists? And I think maybe we could start with some concepts that we're more familiar with, concepts like symbolic implementation in the sociology literature of signaling in the political science literature and some of the other concepts that share family resemblance with this. There's also blame avoidance. There's also propaganda And also therapeutic governance, which is a concept in Chinese politics literature.

So what this is showing is that there is this type of state behavior and especially when the state is under very strong public pressure to do something, but it lacks the actual capacity to do anything at all. Its only option is to pretend that it is competent, benevolent, and responsive. And this in turn perhaps helps assuage angry citizens, and helps, perhaps, prevent individual complaints from amalgamating into larger scale environmental crises.

MARK BLYTH: So we have, again, let's go back to this idea that at the center there's at least some more policy instruments and more weight tools to make people do stuff. And then it gets delegated down. And let's bring it to the community that you spent five months in. You worked alongside as a participant observation, the environmental bureaucrats that were in charge of doing inspections and making sure that companies weren't dumping stuff in the river.

And what you came away from that was that everyone was in on the fake. It's like they used to say about communist societies. You pretend to pay us and we'll pretend to work. My question is this, why was there no authority? Why was there no teeth to what they were doing? Surely, the center knew that these guys couldn't really do the job that we're being tasked with. So how did it get to that situation whereby performative governments became the only thing they could do?

IZA DING: Yeah, so first I don't know if this thing I'm observing is exactly the same as what we observe during communist societies, such as I pretend to work you pretend to pay me. In that, we do know, for instance in China, there are these well-known projects, performance projects-- so big airports with no flights coming out of, displays, and county governments that look like the White House, and things like that.

So those have come under sharp criticism even by the central government itself. And what performative governance does, and this is how it differs from the stereotypical communist propaganda, is that it focuses on the little things, that gestures, and the state lowering itself in front of citizens, acting as its punching bags, even literally stripping itself down to its swim trunks, and jumping the river, and swimming for the citizens audience, and then for their entertainment, and for them to laugh at.

So I think those literal things are quite new in contemporary China in terms of the performativity as a phenomena. And then on your second question of how-- does the central government know? I don't know if they know. I think the literature would say that in a large bureaucracy, you get these principal Asian problems that are exacerbated by information asymmetry.

So it's likely that the center actually does not know that street level bureaucrats do not have the capacity to do things. And it's not like in China, you could really call Xi Jinping and say, could we get more things at the street level? I don't know if you could do that in the United States either.

So it's possible that the center actually doesn't know, but then the center eventually realized that this is something that's happening on the street level. And that is shown through these recent campaigns against bureaucratism, formalism, against what Xi Jinping calls flamboyant displays that are devoid of substance. So I think the center eventually realized performative governance exists at a street level. And they think it's a big problem. And they tell the street level bureaucrats to stop doing that.

But then with a scholars are arguing, Chinese scholars, me included is that, well, the reason they're doing that is because they're put under a lot of pressure both by the public and by the central government. And they are absolutely devoid of resources to do anything at all, which is why they had to do that because there's simply no better alternative. So I think that's the reason why we're seeing that. And that's also why you see this gap between what the center wants and what the street level people are doing.

MARK BLYTH: So it's almost as if the street level people get trapped in a bad equilibrium. And here's what I mean by that. So imagine the center doesn't know that they are just faking it till you make it type thing because they don't have the instruments or the authority to do the things they're tasked with. So they have a coping strategy, which is we'll respond to criticism, et cetera.

As you point out in your book and you just alluded to, the Chinese government has recently become very interested in how policy is done and executed-- notions of symbolic responsiveness, and benevolence, et cetera. That allows them to, in a sense, become the complaints bureau. One of the things you noted in the book was that 75% of the work hours of these folks is not actually doing factory inspections and testing the water, it's answering the phones to complaints. So they get stuck in this bad equilibrium. Is that the essence of what you found when you were there?

IZA DING: Yes, that's pretty much the essence. And I totally agree that these local bureaucracies are presented with an impossible situation. And they are stuck in this bad equilibrium. And it's very much, at least with this issue and during that period of the study, very much driven by these mountains of complaints from local citizens.

And obviously, complaints are not new in China. And Martin Dimitrov for instance, has a new book. It's called Dictatorship and Information or Information Dictatorship, looking at the historical use of petitions and complaints in China, but also elsewhere in former communist regimes.

We now also know that petitions are not unique. Even historically in China, we know from Deborah Boucoyannis new book that actually petitions is something that existed even in medieval England. So it's really interesting to think about, is this actually Chinese political culture? Is it just governments in general have devised these complaint mechanisms.

But I think what's unique here is that you do see that with environmental issues, citizens use complaints more and more often. And one thing that's quite interesting, what I discover through my survey analysis in chapter 4 is that people who are more satisfied with local environmental governance, they are more likely to use petitions and complaints.

But they are less likely to join environmental protests. So this indirectly confirms the logic-- performative governance is to process these public grievances through these established mechanisms of complaints and petitions and to prevent that from becoming protests and becoming these larger scale crises.

MARK BLYTH: So rather than drawing a hard line between governments who are, as you put it, inert. They just can't get anything done, won't do anything. And then the ones that are performing. And then the ones that really do it, substantive. We can almost draw a softer line between the latter two-- between substantive and performative.

In the sense that, you may not be cleaning up the environment, but if you are seen to be doing things or at least being responsive to the notion that need you need clean up the environment, that demobilizes people. And that takes the pressure off the government to do something that it actually has a hard time doing. That is actually a payoff to performative governments in that case.

IZA DING: I have not thought about it that way, But i think you can certainly think about it that way. For sure, yeah.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah. I'm glad I came up with something interesting for you. Then that's great. Let's pull out for a little bit and go theoretical on this, not for the sake of it but just because it helps us to zoom out from the deals for a minute. There's lots of ways of talking about performance and performativity. There's everything from Austin, Arden, I should say or Austin with linguistics. It could be both of them.

And then there is, of course, Mackenzie and others in finance and finance theory. There is Butler on gender, the whole thing. But you went with Erving Goffman, a sociology classic from the '60s. And he appeals quite a lot in the book. What was it about what Goffman saw in everyday performance that made you think, oh, this is useful for me?

IZA DING: It's an interesting story. Actually, Goffman did not come to me. And Goffman--

MARK BLYTH: Sorry, were you waiting for Goffman?

IZA DING: Yeah, I was waiting for Goffman. During a inspection, one of the bureaucrats said to me, what they were doing was face work. And this is my translation from the Chinese term. And when I heard that word and when I translated in my head into English, I realized it's actually the title of a paper by Erving Goffman, face work. And that's a concept he uses to describe impression management in everyday life.

And I found that book could be used to build my concept theoretically. And in defining this concept, I drew from Judith Butler's definition of performativity. But then the way I understand performative governance is through impression management, like Goffman. Whereas I think other people, when they're writing about performativity, they're talking about slightly different things.

Butler's talking about submission to cultural hegemony. So she's writing about this through this normative lens and calling for performative breakdown, calling for people to stop engaging these gender conventions. And when we think about economic sociologists, when they use performativity, and going back to Austin, those are seen as speech acts and things that we say and then we do, but then in turn calls things into being such as the rational market.

And I think those are really, really interesting, but slightly different views on performativity. And Austin actually became so exasperated after he came up with this concept and because he got dragged into all these debates about, is the sentence performative or is the sentence not performative? He says something, which I quote in my book. And this is not a complicated word. Stop debating over what this actually is.

And I think another thing I want to mention is that while I was writing this book, I kept getting back to the dictionary to look at what the dictionary definition for this word is. I think it was Merriam-Webster, but also Oxford Dictionary. And then you notice that the definition of the term actually changed over time, even just over the past few years.

And if you do a Google Ngram search, you see dramatic rise in the frequency in which this word, performativity, is used. So then basically, what I eventually did is to went with the dictionary definition of performativity, but then really drawing theoretical inspiration from Goffman's work on impression management, even though he actually seldom used the word performative as much as some of the other people.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, it's definitely it's become a social science buzzword that it means a huge number of different things. What I particularly like about the book is the clarity that you basically say. There's all this stuff and all these different ways of defining it. I'm talking about something really straightforward, literally people are performing. Now, the question is, why are they doing this? Let me turn that into a direction to talk about someone who appears in the book called Max. And Max is fascinating because when we think about--

IZA DING: Max, as Max Weber, Max?

MARK BLYTH: No, Max, as in the guy who did the civil service exam. Wasn't he called Max?

IZA DING: Oh, Max.

MARK BLYTH: Max, sorry. See this is Scottish accent getting in the way there.

IZA DING: But there's also the Max Weber.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, there's also Max Weber. There's also Karl Marx. Yeah, it's funny. I guess Scottish people have lazy R's if they're stuck between a vowel and a consonant. That's a Marx as opposed to-- anyway, we'll get back to this. Max, I'd have to say that an American way, Max.

So there's a guy called Max, Max, who appears in the book. And Max is a street level bureaucrat. Now, in the west, when we think of street level bureaucrats, we think about, in the US, somebody who works at the DMV, or works in the local tax office, and all of the stereotypes about they crave security, they have no ambition, they're not very good, they couldn't survive in the private sector, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff goes on.

But this is a highly talented, motivated individual who comes out one of the top university programs, studies his buns off for an incredibly difficult exam that 1% of the population sit and about 1% pass. And he ends up in that job. Now, someone with that skill set here in the United States would be, well, they're off to Wall Street or something like that. Why would Max choose that path?

IZA DING: It's unclear whether he chose that path or his mom chose that path.


IZA DING: He's ambitious. And then, what do ambitious people want? Usually two things-- money or prestige. And Max, I think he would be OK with either money and prestige. And he's also interested in money. Many of his classmates graduated from this top college also, went into the private sector were making a lot of money.

So if you graduate with a degree in environmental engineering or sciences, you could actually start your company for environmental evaluation. You could start one of these environmental evaluation firms, and will work with these local bureaucracies, and write up environmental impact assessment reports, and so on. So you can do many, many different things with this degree.

But his mom thought it would be a stable job. So civil servants in China are-- they're well compensated, not as well compensated as those in Singapore, but it's a respectable job and especially for people in some provinces. But the most important thing about this job is that it is stable. So for his mom, who really went through everything from the culture revolution to reform layoffs, stability is really important.

So he went to the EP-- worked for the EPB and studied really hard. Everybody has to go through this national service-- civil service examination. And it's five times as hard to get admitted into the civil service than to get into the Harvard College. There's just so many people studying for that. And the quote unquote "admission rate" is about 1%.

MARK BLYTH: So that's why I'm so fascinated by because when he gets there, he must be smart enough to figure out, hang on a minute. I'm not actually going to do much environmental enforcement here.

IZA DING: He did, yeah.

MARK BLYTH: I'm going to be spending my time answering the phones of crazy people who, as you point out in the book, are not even calling up about environmental problems. They're calling up because their marriage is falling apart. So why does he stick at it?

IZA DING: So he did not in the end. So he stuck at that for a while, but he noticed, one, the EPB is a weak bureaucracy. And he's an ambitious individual. He wants to get promoted. If you can't make a lot of money, at least I want status. So once he get promoted, he realize that it's hard if you work for the EPB So he then studied for this internal exam through which you can get transferred to other bureaucracies. And he tried for three years and eventually succeeded in year three. And now, he works for a more powerful bureaucracy.

And when I talked to him again or the last time I talked to him in Twenty Nineteen, he talked to me about his job now, which is more holistic, balancing different things like economic development, environmental protection. He described himself, when he was in EPB as a frog at the bottom of the well.

The idea is that you cannot see the entire sky. And now, he's in this more powerful bureaucracy, he realizes, actually, the environment is a very, very small piece in China's governance puzzle. And then there are bigger things for the government to worry about, things like businesses, employment, development, and so on, and so forth.

MARK BLYTH: So he's interesting for many reasons. I find him a fascinating character, but what he also shows is, your key thesis really has teeth here that I imagine to be a strong bureaucracy, where he's gotten less scrutiny, more capacity. And it's really these areas of government. And this is what makes this story transportable well beyond the China case.

If you think about an area where the public's really hell up about something, but you just don't have the capacity to do it, literally the only thing you can do is either just admit that you can't do it, which is going to cost you politically or do some performance. You're literally dancing around it. Now at the end of your book, you've got a couple of cases that show us exactly this. Talk about Flint Michigan and the water crisis, why this is very similar to this story.

IZA DING: So I went to the University of Michigan for my undergraduate studies and which is why when the Flint water crisis happened, I was paying a lot of attention to that, which is why Flint eventually became a case study in my book. I remember seeing the news that Mayor Walling went on TV to drink water from the tap. I remember seeing Governor Rick Snyder also went on TV to drink water from the tap. And I remember President Obama went to Flint, eventually, drank water from a clear glass. I remember all that.

And this is something that's not unique to Flint. So once you start paying attention, after water crises, officials around the world go on TV to drink water from a clear glass. They also go swimming. And so it's either drinking, if it's drinking water problem, you go drink water. If it's river pollution, you go swimming the river. So it's something for some reason that officials around the world are using.

And the Flint case shows that when the problem objectively existed, but without having come under strong public scrutiny, there was a lack of action from the state, from the city of Flint. And actually, officials were denying the existence of the problem. But after this issue became widely known in the news media through this Virginia Tech report and through this whistleblower blowing the whistle and telling the news about it, you see rising public scrutiny over the issue, yet the government lacked the ability to do that.

Actually, Flint was in financial crisis. So we could debate about whether they wanted to solve the issue or whether they didn't want to solve the issue. But it's true that Flint government is not one of the wealthiest local governments in the United States. And in fact, the reason that they switched the tap water source was to help alleviate this local government financial problem.

But eventually, the public did not buy that. And what eventually happened is that President Obama sent federal aid to the state of Michigan, to Flint and eventually helping to resolve the problem. But it's unclear whether the problem actually eventually got resolved. And I think it's improved, but it seems like the last time I checked, the water in Flint is still undrinkable.

MARK BLYTH: Right. But so they still have, in a sense, this is when performance fails. You start drinking the water and saying, no, no. It's fine. It's fine. And then along comes Goffman concept, the destructive information from outside, that animates even more scrutiny. And at that point, it's like, no, we really don't have the capacity to do this. We now have a crisis. In a way, a crisis really only becomes a crisis when performative governance completely fails. Would that be fair?

IZA DING: Exactly. The destructive information, the Goffmanian concept's really important here. And at least two of the cases I looked at in my book, such information was released to the public by whistleblowers. And now we do know that whistleblowing is an extremely rare phenomena in governments and bureaucracy.

The fact that we call them whistleblowers speaks to the fact that most of the times people in the system are complicit in the system's behavior information gets out only when you have these really rogue agents blowing the whistle, and so on, and so forth. So the information environment and destructive information, in particular, can cause a breakdown of the performance through this breaking down of communication between society and the public ceasing to buy


IZA DING: Yeah, exactly.

MARK BLYTH: Buy into the performance. I want to close with something. We've spoken about the big, powerful politicians at the center, the street level bureaucrats, the incentives of individuals to join in the system, a whole host of issues. But let's talk about the-- you mentioned the survey you do. Let's talk about mass publics.

So a really critical question was, are people buying into this? And without reducing your findings to very, very far simpler than they actually are, my takeaway on it was the following, when you do performance of governance, people accept it as it is. And that acts almost as a surrogate for doing something to a certain point. But at the same time, the same public, when surveyed a different way, will basically say, no, they're a bunch of clowns and they're not doing anything. How do these two versions of what the public are saying coexist?

IZA DING: Yes, actually, that's a very good summary of what I found. So what I noticed in my survey analysis which I supplemented with interviews is that, without getting too much into the methodologies of the social sciences, it's indeed the case that the surveys, and the survey analysis, and the interviews are showing me things that are not completely contradictory to each other but that are intention.

MARK BLYTH: There is intention, absolutely.

IZA DING: Yeah, exactly. The regression results shows me, on average, in general, people buys that in the short term, but then it doesn't tell me what about the rest of the people, those people were not convinced. And that's what the interviews did, is to look at, first, to the extent that people buy this, why?

And second, for those people who don't buy this, why is it the case? And I think the most interesting thing I found is that there are gaps between an issue, and people's perception of the issues severity, and whether they're upset about it, and what their preferred policy solution is. So these gaps could not be captured in my survey.

I'm thinking about doing news surveys to actually capture those gaps. But what that means is that just because air pollution or climate change exists as facts doesn't mean people believe that there are facts. And just because people believe those exist, doesn't mean they are upset about it. And just because people are upset about it doesn't, mean they agree on the policy solution to that.

So those are some of the things that came out in my interview, which I'm further exploring in ongoing research. But those are the things that survey questions don't tell us. And one of the questions asked people if environment and economy were to come into tension, which one would you choose? And almost 80% of the respondents told me that they would choose the environment.

Really interesting finding, but then that seems to not have really come out in the interviews I did. And why is that the case? Well, that's because the survey questions forcing people to choose between the two. Whereas in the interviews, you can actually hear their reasoning and hear them talking about, OK, the environment's important, but if I really have to lose my job then, no. So which is why I combined these semi-structured interviews with the survey to try to present a more full and rich picture of public opinion concerning environmental issues in China.

MARK BLYTH: But to turn it about your own thesis and push it over further, perhaps then that's also another reason why this performative move works, because you have this heterogeneity of responses. If the public was monolithic, had an idea what the problem was, what the solution was, and then they could usually say, you're not doing it. They're just faking it.

But if you have that heterogeneity, there's a space for literally performing that we're doing something about it. And that can buy you time, either to get into substantive governance, actually clean up or alternatively for it to collapse like Flint Michigan and to be fully called out on it.

IZA DING: Exactly, exactly. The pivotal audience of performative governance is this, when Nancy Bermeo calls ordinary people. And the fact about ordinary people is that they don't pay that much attention to what's going on, unless it's something that's directly affecting them. So the pivotal audience of performative governance is not the decedents. They're not a lot of them. And it's also not people who are paying these intense attentions to these things.

The key audience is really people who are paying some attention to the news, but they're not paying that much attention to the extent that they will go do their own investigation, like I did, to realize, OK, this river that they went swimming in is now the same river as this other river, and so on, and so forth.

So I think because we know, through public opinion research, that people, in general, they're not paying that much attention to everything that's in the political sphere. And then their attention shifts pretty dramatically over a course of days, if not hours, which is why performative governance, as you said, could fill in the blank until either the government gathers capacity to resolve the issue or if they don't want to, for people's attention, to change to something else.

MARK BLYTH: It's a fascinating book. I really enjoyed reading it. I recommend it to everyone. And I hope it wins many awards.

IZA DING: Thank you.


MARK BLYTH: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Lella Wirth. I'm Mark Blyth. You can listen to more conversations like this by subscribing to the Rhodes Central Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back soon with another episode of the Rhodes Center Podcast. Thanks.

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