Symbolic Legitimacy and Chinese Environmental Reform

63 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2017 Last revised: 16 Jan 2019

See all articles by Alex Wang

Alex Wang

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: October 12, 2017


At the heart of debates over Chinese rule of law is the question of state legitimacy. Critics argue that legitimacy requires liberal democratic rule of law. Chinese leaders have long relied on performance legitimacy – economic development and maintenance of social stability – as the core basis of their rule. Western scholarship on modern Chinese law and politics has, to a significant degree, critiqued the ability of China’s current institutions to perform as claimed.

But apart from any actual results that Chinese governance may generate, the entire project of governance reform can be structured in a way that influences public impressions of state legitimacy. The process of reform is not only about attaining performance goals, but is itself a kind of performance. This act of “performing performance” also signals competence, commitment to the people, tradition, nationalist strength, and a host of other positive values to citizens and other audiences. This focus on the reform process itself as a means of “symbolic legitimation” is an aspect of China’s “authoritarian resilience” that existing scholarship has virtually ignored.

This Article develops the concept of symbolic legitimation and identifies its key tools, structures, and approaches. Central to the phenomenon is uncertainty created by complexity, active information control, and populist politics. When outputs are difficult to ascertain, reform inputs come to stand for outcomes. Even more, the reform process itself becomes an output that can signal state legitimacy. The Article presents case studies on eco-civilization reform, air pollution, soil pollution, and climate change to illustrate the concept.

To be clear, symbolic use of law and governance is present in any country, regardless of region or regime type. This Article’s contribution is to shine a light on the way symbolic reform works in China’s authoritarian setting. At the same time, the findings here will be of interest to those concerned about the growing impact of information manipulation and populism on governance in the U.S. and other countries.

Keywords: China, Chinese Rule of Law, Climate Reform, Eco-Civilization Reform, Pollution, Climate Change, Chinese Law and Politics

Suggested Citation

Wang, Alex, Symbolic Legitimacy and Chinese Environmental Reform (October 12, 2017). 48 Environmental Law 699 (2018), UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-39, Available at SSRN:

Alex Wang (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
1242 Law Building, Room 3382
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
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