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SES Dissertation Defense

September 13, 2022 @ 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

Mengying "Mandy" Wu (IDSS)


Mengying Wu

Local official and polluter accountability in China’s environmental inspections


Poor environmental practices can lead to high levels of ambient pollution that damage human health and cause premature death. Even if environmental regulations are well designed, incomplete implementation at the local level carries high social costs. Although widely documented, solutions to inadequate enforcement have not been comprehensively studied. Here I use the setting of China’s environmental inspections to study what interventions effectively overcome the enforcement gap and reduce air pollution in Chinese cities. Specifically, I target interventions that focus on changing the behavior of polluting firm managers and local environmental bureaucrats.

In this thesis, I evaluate China’s “new” hybrid approach, environmental inspections, that combines top-down scrutiny with bottom-up reporting. First, I study the dynamic polluter responses to central scrutiny, a sharp, short-lived increase in regulatory enforcement. Using data from China that links the intensity of environmental policing to high-frequency air pollution data, I show that crackdown over short (one-month) periods results in a sharp (35-39%) reduction in weekly average pollution around coal power plants. Pollution gradually reverts to prior levels after crackdowns end. The pace of reversion is faster for firms that outrank the city government, suggesting that hierarchical ties to China’s central authorities limit a firm’s accountability to the local environmental protection bureau.

Second, I provide a detailed description of the citizen complaints collected during the environmental inspection and evaluate the incremental effectiveness of the complaint channel on plant’s environmental performance. I build a novel data set that includes all complaint entries filed by citizens. I describe the frequency of complaints received by a wide range of polluters during the campaign, from small barbecue stalls to large aluminum smelters, suggesting that citizens focus on the most salient pollution sources in their immediate surroundings. Engaging citizen informants during crackdowns is not associated with larger pollution reductions but has no lasting effect, especially for the outranking firms. I further explore the effectiveness of such approach in a repeated version as the same program is conducted nationwide two years after the initial round. I find diminishing effects of top-down scrutiny as plants learn and update their beliefs on the seriousness of the campaign. However, direct central attention to these outranking firms during the lookback round prolongs the environmental inspection effect.

Third, I ask what drives citizen engagement in a central-initiated monitoring program in an authoritarian regime. I identify city and plant characteristics that predict the number of per capita complaints. Cities with poor environmental performance at baseline receive more complaints during the environmental inspection in both rounds. However, citizens can not identify and report egregious plants that polluted more in the baseline period. Further, citizens’ willingness to file complaints depends upon the environmental effectiveness of the original round. At the city level, per capita air-related complaints received in the look-back round will decrease if there is a reversion to the baseline pollution level for measured air pollutants after the original round ends.

This dissertation empirically documents the limits of China’s highly centralized, state-led approach to improving environmental governance through enforcement crackdowns and engaging citizen complaints.


Valerie Karplus (supervisor, CMU), Noelle Selin (chair, co-supervisor), Lily Tsai (co-supervisor)


Virtual event. To attend virtually, please contact the IDSS Academic Office (idss_academic_office@mit.edu) for connection information.

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307