Stalin's "Road to Nowhere", Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia
Title: “Authoritarian Politics and Environmental Activism in Russia and China”
This project, based on my dissertation, employs a paired comparison of environmental activism in China and Russia to explain why state-society relations under authoritarianism vary so widely from repression to cooperation. Environmental activism provides an ideal window into this variation, since it can be perceived as both threatening and complementary to state goals, in sharp contrast to more contentious topics like human rights or more innocuous ones like social service provision. To analyze this variation, the manuscript is structured around four “arenas of interaction” between activists and the state: attracting (or blocking) international influence, engaging in and responding to mass mobilization, seeking justice (or revenge) through the legal system, and cultivating informal or formal relationships for collaboration or co-optation.
Through this analysis, I find that most variation can be explained by considering each state’s differing approach to the authoritarian dilemma of information and control and how that is shaped by differences in political structure, the regime’s basis of power, and major historical traumas. Contrary to expectations, environmental activists in closed authoritarian China are more impactful due to China’s deliberative approach to governance and informal consultation with civil society. Furthermore, the legacy of Tiananmen ensures more self-limiting behavior to encourage these types of relationships. In the Russian case, however, the electoral cycle is a more effective channel for policy change and has eclipsed formal, but unreliable, institutions. However, the potential for electoral mobilization has made Russian leaders wary of environmental movements, especially given the historical role of the post-Chernobyl environmental movement in the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally, a reliance on natural resources in Russia – and powerful elites’ connections to major extractive industries – can make environmental activism a perceived threat. Instead of focusing on sources of regime durability or collapse, this dissertation contributes to the literature on authoritarianism by explaining the seemingly contradictory state-society relations that underlie everyday authoritarian politics.
Methodologically, my research draws on both quantitative and qualitative data. The book analyzes data collected during more than 13 months of fieldwork in both China and Russia. This included over 140 semi-structured interviews with environmental activists, NGO practitioners, scholars, and government officials conducted across many regions in both countries, but with particular focus on Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan, and Guangdong in China and Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk, and Tyumen in Russia. I supplement these interviews with participant observation, analysis of open sources (such as media reports, legal documents, and NGO publications), and collection of an original quantitative dataset on the implementation of recent laws concerning NGO registration in both countries.
Additional research projects
Censorship of social media in China This project, with co-author Christopher Cairns (Center for Naval Analyses), explores state-society relationships under authoritarianism through the lens of social media management in China. We use human- and computer-assisted coding techniques to analyze over 70,000 relevant Chinese social media posts during a high-profile air pollution controversy in 2012. The first paper from this project, “Why Autocrats Sometimes Relax Censorship: Signaling Government Responsiveness on Chinese Social Media” (which recently received a revise & resubmit), argues that authoritarians periodically relax control over information in order to signal government responsiveness to citizens’ legitimate demands (specifically, for greater information transparency) and curtail the risk of collective action risk. The second paper “Hazy Messaging: Framing Air Pollution on Chinese Social Media,” examines three types of primary non-state actors – grassroots environmental leaders, public figures, and branches of international ENGOs – to determine the main social media influencers and the frames that contributed to the online mobilization against air pollution in 2012. A final paper from the project, in its early stages, will examine the relationship between this online mass mobilization of public opinion and the role of civil society actors in the resulting changes in state policies regarding air pollution.
International aid to civil society in authoritarian regimes A second major project, building on work from my dissertation, analyzes the shifting context for international philanthropy supporting civil society in authoritarian regimes. This research began with an analysis of recent laws in Russia and China that scrutinize international assistance to their domestic civil societies.
The first paper in this project, “Not All NGOs Are Created Equal: Selective Repression and Civil Society in Russia and China,” uses a dataset on the implementation of the 2012 Russian law on “foreign agents” and the 2017 Chinese Overseas NGO Management Law to show how both regimes use legislation to selectively repress certain groups. I find that while human rights groups are targets in both countries, environmental groups in Russia are disproportionately affected when compared to their peers in China. This suggests that environmental groups are perceived as a threat in Russia, but as a partner in China. A second paper, “A Tale of Two Laws: Managing Foreign Agents and Overseas NGOs in Russia and China,” prepared as a book chapter in an edited volume, focuses on the parallel development of these laws, their overall effect on domestic and international NGOs operating in Russia and China, and the broader trend toward anti-foreign framings in both countries as evidence of authoritarian learning.
These papers will inform a book-length project on the subject, for which fieldwork will begin in 2019. Using the cases of China and Russia, I examine why foundations initially decided to invest in these countries, why they decided to fund certain issue areas or programs, and how they have coped with increasing restrictions on foreign funding to civil society. The project will also investigate the extent to which China and Russia (and other countries) learn from one another when passing similar laws restricting foreign funding and whether affected international foundations share experiences between country offices on the impact of these laws. I intend to publish an article on my preliminary findings by summer 2020.