A hazy future: local-scale air pollution, public opinion, and government legitimacy in contemporary China
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This dissertation explores the sources of government legitimacy in China by utilizing a series of large-scale public opinion surveys and comparing the results against local economic and environmental data. In analyzing how ordinary Chinese citizens form opinions about government performance, I look beyond more static explanatory factors such as demographic information and political ideology, and focus instead on quantifiable changes in quality of life indicators such as the provision of public goods and local environmental quality. In particular, I emphasize the importance of air pollution, both real and perceived, in shaping citizen attitudes. The results of this dissertation are divided into three studies. The first study utilizes survey data from 2003-2016 and finds evidence that, despite the persistence of vast socioeconomic and regional inequalities, low-income citizens and residents living in China’s less-developed inland provinces have actually reported comparatively greater increases in satisfaction since 2003. The second study uses survey data to analyze interactions between objective and perceived air pollution, subjective well-being, government satisfaction, and environmental activism. It finds that Chinese citizens are able to accurately assess the severity of local air pollution, but that changes in air quality are more important in determining life satisfaction. It also shows that, although perceived air quality affects how citizens view environmental governance, it does not affect their willingness to participate in environmental protests. Finally, the third study compares air pollution measurements from local government and U.S.-controlled monitoring stations in five Chinese cities, and shows that government-controlled stations systematically report lower-than-expected pollution concentrations when air quality is poor. These results suggest that local manipulation of air quality data in China remains widespread, and refutes the findings of other recent studies which argue that manipulation largely ended after policy reforms in 2013. Together, these three studies offer insight into the ability of the Chinese government to maintain popular support in the face of declining growth, environmental degradation, and institutional failures. While widespread anti-government uprisings appear unlikely, this dissertation shows that Chinese people do respond to real changes in living standards, and that government leaders cannot continue to take the allegiance of ordinary citizens for granted.