Stalin's "Road to Nowhere", Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia
Dissertation project Title: “Authoritarian Politics and Environmental Activism in Russia and China” Committee: Valerie Bunce (chair), Andrew Mertha, Ronald Herring, & Kenneth Roberts
My dissertation employs a paired comparison of environmental activism in Russia and China 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 dissertation is structured around four “arenas of interaction” between activists and the state: engaging in and responding to mass mobilization, seeking justice (or revenge) through the law and courts, attracting (or blocking) international influence, and cultivating informal or formal relationships for collaboration or co-optation. Through this analysis, I find that most variation can be explained by three main factors that shape perceptions of opportunity and threat: political structure, economic conditions, and historical legacy. 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 – as opposed to manufacturing labor in China – 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. My dissertation analyzes data collected during more than 13 months of fieldwork in both Russia and China. 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, explores state-society relationships under authoritarianism through the lens of social media management in China. We used 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. We identify three main frames of air pollution that are used throughout the project: government blame or responsibility, human health concerns, and scientific information. The first paper from this project “Why Autocrats Sometimes Relax Censorship: Signaling Government Responsiveness on Chinese Social Media,” 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 or reputational harm. 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. By comparing these three non-state actors and their main issue frames, we show how the state varies its response by actor and frame, relaxing control over some “issue entrepreneurs” and frames (human health and scientific information), while heavily censoring others who have a broader public following and more sensitive framing (government blame or responsibility). 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 in the dissertation, analyzes recent laws in Russia and China that scrutinize international assistance to their domestic civil societies. The first paper in this series, “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. The 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. A third paper, “Win, Lose, or Appeal?: Seeking Justice after the 2012 Russian ‘Foreign Agent’ Law,” examines the successful and unsuccessful attempts of Russian domestic NGOs contesting the “foreign agent” label in courts, identifying the factors that predict the likelihood of winning (or losing) their cases. This paper has been accepted as part of a panel at the upcoming Association for Slavic and East European Studies (ASEEES) annual convention in November 2017. As an extension of this project, I will analyze which foreign grants are most likely to land an organization on the “foreign agents” list (and, therefore, which foreign sources are deemed most “threatening” to the state). I plan to develop this into a second book-length project on authoritarian responses to international influence and the phenomenon of authoritarian learning.
Impact of electoral mobilization on social movements This project investigates the interaction between social movements, parties, and elections in electoral authoritarian regimes. Drawing on the idea of a cycle of electoral mobilization, I consider the impact that such a cycle has on a domestic social movement in Russia. I find that although the electoral mobilization distracted from the movement’s initial goal, activists learned overall positive lessons from the experience of collaborating with opposition parties, with many continuing their collaboration beyond the single movement, building social capital for the next cycle of mobilization. I will present this paper, “The Impact of Failed Electoral Mobilization on Social Movements in Russia,” on a panel at the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting in September 2017.