The Political Pollution Cycle

36 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2016 Last revised: 14 Oct 2018

Date Written: September 2018


Building on the principal-agent (P-A) tradition with more recent insights, this paper challenges the implicit assumption in existing P-A models that the level of local compliance in autocracies like China is constant over time. Studying the critical case of air pollution control policies to fathom the effect of political incentives on policy implementation over time, I advance a theory of what I call the “political pollution cycle.” I theorize that local agents cater to the policy prioritization of the principal 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 economic achievements and social stability boded well for their career advancement. Such strategic implementation came unintentionally with tremendous human costs.

Keywords: policy implementation, principal-agent, environmental politics, China, regulatory politics, political cycles

JEL Classification: N50, O44, P48

Suggested Citation

Shen, Shiran Victoria, The Political Pollution Cycle (September 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Shiran Victoria Shen (Contact Author)

University of Virginia ( email )

1540 Jefferson Park Ave
S183 Gibson Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904
United States


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