Seeing Ghosts: Parsing China's "Ghost City" Controversy
Urban Geography, September 2017 (with Max Woodworth)
Controversy has arisen in recent years over the creation of so-called “ghost cities” across China. The ghost city term tends to describe large-scale urban areas, sometimes planned as new towns, featuring an abundance of new built space and appearing to also have extremely low tenancy. This article examines key questions related to the ghost city phenomenon, such as: what is a ghost city? Are ghost cities driven by a tendency toward over-supply in housing? How are local-level political incentives aligned to foster the production of ghost cities? Are ghost cities temporary anomalies or structural features of China’s urban-led economic growth model? We discuss recent scholarly research into ghost cities and present original findings to show how an excess of urban space may plague certain Chinese cities.
The Political and Economic Consequences of Nationalist Protest in China:
Repercussions of the 2012 Anti-Japanese Demonstrations
China Quarterly, Forthcoming (with Jessica Chen Weiss and Kevin Foley)
What are the consequences of nationalist unrest? This paper utilizes two original datasets—covering 377 city-level anti-Japanese protests during the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu Island crisis and the careers of municipal leaders—to analyse the downstream effects of nationalist unrest at the subnational level. We find both political and economic consequences of China’s 2012 protest demonstrations against Japan. Specifically, top party leaders in cities that saw relatively spontaneous, early protests were less likely to be promoted to higher office, consistent with the widely-held but rarely tested expectation that social instability is punished in the Chinese Communist Party’s cadre evaluation system. We also see a negative effect of nationalist protest on foreign direct investment (FDI) growth at the city level. However, the lower promotion rates associated with relatively spontaneous protests appear to arise through political rather than economic channels. By taking into account data on social unrest in addition to economic performance, these results add to existing evidence that systematic evaluation of leaders’ performance plays a major role in the Chinese political system. These findings also illuminate the dilemma that local leaders face in managing popular nationalism amid shifting national priorities.
Cities, Redistribution, & Authoritarian Regime Survival
Journal of Politics, July 2013
How does redistributive policy affect the survival of authoritarian regimes? I argue that redistributive policy in favor of cities, while temporarily reducing urban grievances, in the long-run undermines regime survival by inducing urban concentration. I test the argument using cross-national city population, urban bias, and nondemocratic regime survival data in the post-WWII period. The results show that urban concentration is dangerous for dictators principally by promoting collective action, that urban bias induces urban concentration, and that urban bias represents a Faustian bargain with short-term benefits overwhelmed by long-term costs.
Replication materials here.
Replication materials here.
Juking the Stats: Authoritarian Information Problems in China
British Journal of Political Science, January 2016
Economic statistics dominate policy analyses, political discussions, and the study of political economy. Such statistics inform citizens on general conditions while central leaders also use them to evaluate local officials. Are economic data systematically manipulated? After establishing discrepancies in economic data series across regime types cross-nationally, I dive into sub-national growth data in China. This paper leverages variation in the likelihood of manipulation over two dimensions, arguing that politically sensitive data are more likely to be manipulated at politically sensitive times. GDP releases generate headlines, while highly correlated electricity production and consumption data are less closely watched. At the sub-national level in China, the difference between GDP and electricity growth increases in years with leadership turnover, consistent with juking the stats for political reasons. The analysis points to the political role of information and the limits of non-electoral accountability mechanisms in authoritarian regimes as well as suggesting caution in the use of politically sensitive official economic statistics.
Replication materials here.
Replication materials here.
Who Uses the Clean Development Mechanism? An Empirical Analysis of Projects in Chinese Provinces
Global Environmental Change, April 2013 (with Patrick Bayer & Johannes Urpelainen)
China is by far the largest host of projects implemented under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). However, earlier studies shed little light on the determinants of the distribution of CDM projects across Chinese provinces. Given China’s large size and political-economic diversity, this dearth of research is troubling. We provide an empirical analysis of 2097 CDM projects in 30 Chinese provinces, 2004–2009. We find that high electricity consumption, low per capita income, and a lack of foreign direct investment are all associated with CDM project implementation. The findings are particularly strong for electricity and foreign direct investment. These findings are consistent with the economic theory of CDM project implementation. Project developers focus on minimizing the cost of carbon abatement. Moreover, they suggest that the CDM can, despite its limitations, contribute to reducing economic inequality and uneven development in China.
Central vs. Local States: Which Matters More in affecting China’s Urban Growth?
Land Use Policy, May 2014 (with Qian Zhang, Karen Seto, and Xiangzheng Deng)
To date, many geography studies have identified GDP, population, FDI, and transportation factors as key drivers of urban growth in China. The political science literature has demonstrated that China’s urban growth is also driven by powerful economic and fiscal incentives for local governments, as well as by the political incentives of local leaders who control land use in their jurisdictions. These parallel but distinct research traditions limit a comprehensive understanding that can result in partial and potentially misleading conclusions of urbanization in China. This paper presents a spatially explicit study that incorporates both political science and geographic perspectives to understand the relative importance of hierarchal administrative governments in affecting urban growth. We use multi-level modeling approach to examine how socio-economic and policy factors–represented here by fiscal transfers–at different administrative levels affect growth in “urban hotspot counties” across three time periods (1995–2000, 2000–2005, and 2005–2008). Our results show that counties that are more dependent on fiscal transfers from the central government convert less cultivated land to urban use, controlling for other factors. We also find that local governments are becoming more powerful in shaping urban land development as a result of local economic, fiscal, and political incentives, as well as through the practical management and control of capital, land, and human resources. By incorporating fiscal transfers in our analysis, our study examines a factor in the urban development of China that had previously been neglected and provides an improved understanding of the underlying processes and pathways involved in urban growth in China.
The Political Economy of Nationalist Protest in China: A Subnational Approach
China Quarterly, June 2015 (with Jessica Chen Weiss)
Why do some cities take part in waves of nationalist protest but not others? Nationalist protest remains an important but understudied topic within the study of contentious politics in China. Unlike other protests, nationalist mobilization is both more clustered in time and geographically widespread, linking citizens across different cities against a common target. Although the literature has hotly debated the degree of state-led and grassroots influence on Chinese nationalism, we argue that it is important to consider both the willingness and ability of citizens to mobilize as well as local government fears of instability. Analyzing an original dataset of 377 anti-Japanese protests across 208 of 287 Chinese prefectural cities, we find that both state-led patriotism and the availability of collective action resources were positively associated with nationalist protest, particularly "biographically available" populations of students and migrants. In addition, the government's role was not monolithically facilitative. Government fears of social unrest shaped the local political opportunity structure, with anti-Japanese protests less likely in cities with larger populations of unemployed college graduates and ethnic minorities, and more likely in cities with established leaders.
Information Politics in Dictatorships
in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. (eds.) Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn. John Wiley and Sons. January 2015
Political science has made great progress in the study of nondemocratic regime survival in the past fifteen years. Democratization is only one threat that such regimes face—indeed, most nondemocratic regimes are replaced by other dictators. How do regimes learn about the threats facing them? Cutting edge research has pointed to elite institutions, such as legislatures and Politburos, easing information problems amongst regime insiders. However, the ways that nondemocratic regimes gather information about local agent performance and society remain underexplored.