Publications, working papers, cv, etc. For more information, please contact me. Twitter: @jerometenk; Newsletter: The China Lab


Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts: Ideology, Information, and Authoritarianism in China

Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Authoritarian Resilience in China

Articles and Chapters

What’s Not Trending on Weibo: China’s Missing Climate Change Discourse. Environmental Research Communications. 2023. (with Chuxuan Liu)

Given the central role of People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the global climate crisis, discussion and analysis of Chinese actions and pledges on decarbonization abound. However, less examined are the popular ‘demand’ side of climate change politics inside of China. Our article explores a new set of data to gauge public discourse in China related to climate change by looking at trending topics on the prominent social media platform, Sina Weibo. In over 348,000 trending topics on Weibo from June 2017 to February 2021, we find only 336 unique topics, that is 0.12%, related to climate change. Even in the rare occasions when climate-related topics start trending, we find a general lack of substantive engagement in Weibo posts.

Cities for Whom? The 2017 Beijing Demolitions in Context. In China Urbanizing, edited by Weiping Wu and Qin Gao. 2022. (with Shiqi Ma)

Gatekeepers of the Transition: How Provinces Are Adapting to China’s National Decarbonization Pledges. Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy. 2021. (with Ned Downie)

A Plague on Politics? The COVID Crisis, Expertise, and the Future of Legitimation American Political Science Review. 2021. (with Michael Neblo)

​Governments rely more and more on experts to manage the increasingly complex problems posed by a growing, diversifying, globalizing world. Surplus technocracy, however, usually comes with deficits of democracy. While especially true in liberal regimes, authoritarian states often face parallel dynamics. Recent trends illustrate how technocratic encroachment on civil society’s prerogatives can provoke populist backlash. Such cycles can build toward crises by eroding the legitimacy citizens invest in regimes. Surprisingly, by throwing both the need for and limits of expertise into sharp relief, the politics of COVID-19 create a novel opportunity to disrupt these trends. We assess how this opportunity may be unfolding in two crucial cases, the United States and China, and, more briefly, South Korea. We conclude by sketching some theoretical considerations to guide a geographically expanded and temporally extended research agenda on this important opportunity to slow or reverse a trend plaguing modern governance.

Domestic Politics, China’s Rise, and Challenges to the Liberal International OrderInternational Organization. 2021. (with Jessica Chen Weiss) 

With the future of liberal internationalism in question, how will China’s growing power and influence reshape world politics? We argue that views of the Liberal International Order (LIO) as integrative and resilient have been too optimistic for two reasons. First, China’s ability to profit from within the system has shaken the domestic consensus in the United States on preserving the existing LIO. Second, features of Chinese Communist Party rule chafe against many of the fundamental principles of the LIO, but could coexist with a return to Westphalian principles and markets that are embedded in domestic systems of control. How, then, do authoritarian states like China pick and choose how to engage with key institutions and norms within the LIO? We propose a framework that highlights two domestic variables—centrality and heterogeneity—and their implications for China’s international behavior. We illustrate the framework with examples from China’s approach to climate change, trade and exchange rates, Internet governance, territorial sovereignty, arms control, and humanitarian intervention. Finally, we conclude by considering what alternative versions of international order might emerge as China’s influence grows.

Slums amidst Ghost Cities: Incentive and Information Problems in China’s Urbanization Problems of Post-Communism. 2021. (with Jiwon Baik) 

Contrasting elements of China’s “urban sickness” are empty new apartment complexes abutting dilapidated but overcrowded structures. While scholarship has explored these issues separately, we show their common presence even in the least likely of cities. Why are ghost cities and slums simultaneously on the rise in China? Analysis of eight of China’s “ghostliest” cities and in-depth case studies demonstrate how the pursuit of quantified targets generates these particular urban distortions. We argue that their joint rise exposes weaknesses of the regime’s heretofore successful political economy model, which we summarize as the center’s intentionally “limited vision” into local governance.

The New Normal: A Neopolitical Turn in China’s Reform Era in Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia. Koesel, Karrie J., Valerie J. Bunce, & Jessica Chen Weiss, ed. Oxford University Press. 2020.   

The drama was high and the tension thick when President Xi Jinping visited Hebei to attend what became four marathon “democratic life meetings” over two days following months of preparation. On the verge of tears, officials admitted their failings to Xi and the country’s people via Chinese Central Television (CCTV). Zhou Benshun, the province’s Party secretary, stated, “I cared very much about development speed and economic volumes but not as much about people’s own interests.” This emotional display of political conflict— explicitly attacking the value of quantitative metrics of performance— is but one ex­ample introducing a new normal in Chinese politics.

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. (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.

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.

Appendix 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.

Dearth and Distortion in Dictators’ Data in Comparative Politics Newsletter 28(2). pp 70-74. 

Dictators have limited information about the world, their populations, the threats they may face, and even their own regimes. While dictators spend resources to make their populations legible and build institutions to collect this information, those expenditures face political and budgetary constraints. Further, the bureaucrats inside these institutions can face incentives to deliver manipulated data to the dictator. This brief essay focuses on the political sources and consequences of missing and distorted data in dictatorships, illustrated with thumbnail sketches from the People’s Republic of China. First, examples illustrate how ideological and historical constraints harm data quality, leading dictators to make major policy mistakes. Next, I highlight an instance of a regime choosing not to know, where better data collection followed a threat emerging. Then, I turn to how the shape of formal and informal institutions affects the quality of the signals that dictators receive.

Working Papers

Citizen Loyalty, Mass Protest, and Authoritarian Survival (with Beatriz Magaloni)


A copy of my CV is here.