The Political Pollution Cycle

30 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2016 Last revised: 14 Sep 2019

See all articles by Shiran Victoria Shen

Shiran Victoria Shen

University of Virginia - Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

Date Written: November 25, 2014


Incentives shape political behavior. This paper shows that even after controlling for institutional factors and macro trends, local policy implementation in autocracies like China can change over time in potentially predictive ways. Studying the critical case of air pollution control policies, I advance a theory of what I call the “political pollution cycle” to fathom the effect of political incentives on local policy implementation over time. I theorize that local leaders cater to the policy prioritization of the center and, in the process, foster systematic regional patterns of air quality over time. Using remote sensing, box modeling, observational data, and qualitative field research, I find that top prefectural leaders in China ordered laxer regulation of pollution towards the end of their tenure so that the delivery of social stability and economic achievements boded well for their career advancement. Such regulatory forbearance came unintentionally with tremendous human costs.

Keywords: policy implementation, regulation, comparative political economy, environmental governance, China

JEL Classification: N50, O44, P48

Suggested Citation

Shen, Shiran Victoria, The Political Pollution Cycle (November 25, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Shiran Victoria Shen (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics ( email )

PO Box 400787
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904
United States

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