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October 22, 2021

Clean Air at What Cost? The Rise of Blunt Force Regulation

Event Series: Chinese Politics and Economy Research Seminar Series

Power Plant

China’s green transition is often perceived as a lesson in authoritarian efficiency. In a mere few years, the state managed to improve air quality, contain dissent, and restructure an economy plagued by overcapacity. Much of this was achieved through top-down, “blunt force” solutions, such as forcibly shuttering or destroying factories. In this seminar, Denise van der Kamp argued that China’s blunt force pollution regulation is, in fact, a product of weak state capacity and weak bureaucratic control. Drawing on two years of fieldwork in China’s industrial heartlands, van der Kamp’s research shows how the blunt force regulation is used not to scare polluters into respecting pollution standards, but to scare bureaucrats into respecting central orders. Analysis based on satellite data shows that these measures have successfully improved air quality in almost all Chinese cities, but at immense social and economic cost. Van der Kamp argues that blunt force regulation is part of a broader transition towards “governance by uncertainty” in China where, instead of offering credible commitments, the state resorts to sudden surveillance and ad hoc implementation to achieve its goals. In this seminar, van der Kamp examined what this might mean for the future of market governance in China.

This academic seminar was jointly sponsored by the Department of Government and the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.


Denise van der Kamp is an associate professor at Oxford University’s School of Global and Area Studies. Her research explores issues in developmental politics and environmental governance, with a focus on China. In particular, she examines strategies for implementing policies in contexts where both rule of law and civil society are weak. Her book Clean Air at What Cost? is forthcoming at Cambridge University Press. She received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2017, and she was previously an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong.