How May National Culture Shape Public Policy? The Case of Energy Policy in China.

AuthorAndrews-Speed, Philip

    It is almost a tautology to say that the management of public policy varies between countries, and even between different parts of a single country. Prevailing political ideologies, the structures and systems of governance, state capacity, demographics, societal values and norms, and level of economic development all contribute to such variations. As a result, public policy has become an object of study in many disciplines, including political science, economics, public administration, law, sociology and anthropology. Nevertheless, a number of scholars have claimed that public policy analyses have generally failed to take into account societal culture adequately (e.g. Geva-May, 2002; Hoppe, 2007). In her extensive review of the literature, Daniell (2014) identified a number of ways in which culture can determine how publics engage with and respond to public policies and concluded that cultural variation should be taken into account when designing or transferring public policies.

    That is not to say that academics in different fields had not already identified this need. Behavioral economists have long argued that governments should improve their understanding of societal values and behavioral norms in order to improve public policy (Chetty, 2015). Organizational institutionalism recognizes the importance of cognition as well as normative ideas in the public policy process. Campbell (1998), for example, distinguished between ideas at the cognitive level and those at the normative level. In his view, cognitive ideas take two forms: concepts and theories that underpin policy program design; and assumptions that underlie policy paradigms. In contrast, normative ideas take the form of frames that policy makers use to legitimize policy programs, as well as the underlying assumptions held by the public. In the field of public policy, Howlett (2011) adapted this framework to distinguish three sets of ideas: world views and ideologies that shape the approach to governance, policy paradigms that underpin the policy regime, and causal stories that determine the details of the policy program.

    The study of national energy policies has become increasingly sophisticated over the past 20 or so years, stimulated largely by the need to constrain rising greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and use. In addition to the analytical tools traditionally applied to public policy analysis, new approaches pertaining to energy governance include the multi-level perspective (Geels, 2002), reflexive governance (Kemp and Loorbach, 2006) and institutionalism (Andrews-Speed, 2016; Lockwood et al., 2016). Culture is implicated in all these frameworks. Notably, Williamson's (2000) heuristic includes at the highest level the embedded institutions that comprise social values, cognitive frames and normative behaviors (Fig. 1; Level 1).

    However, most analyses that apply one or other of these three approaches focus on structural or institutional variables, with the institutional variables belonging to Williamson's institutional environment (Level 2) or the rules that govern the play of the game (Level 3). Although scholars have variously applied behavioral economic, sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of energy policy, their focus has been mainly on societal values and engagement in the energy policy process and on responses to state policies (e.g. Wilhite et al., 1996; Owens and Driffil, 2008; Mumford and Gray, 2010; Sovacool, 2016; Baker and Mundaca, 2017; Smith and High, 2017; Galvin, 2020). These observations have led scholars to deploy the term "energy culture" coined by Stephenson et al. (2010). However, very few studies have addressed the way in which culture may shape the cognitive aspects of policy design and the approach to policy implementation.

    China is a pertinent example in several respects. First, how China manages its energy sector is a matter of global interest due to its consequences for international energy markets and greenhouse gas emissions. Second, its approach to energy policy design and implementation contrasts with many of the practices and prescriptions of Western nations. Third, its distinctive culture has a long and well-documented history. This provides the opportunity to link what we see today in aspects of China's energy policy to longstanding cultural traditions.

    The aim of this paper is to explore how aspects of national culture may play a role in shaping the way in which public policies are designed and implemented using the example of energy policy in China. The analysis follows two lines of reasoning. The first involves exploring the link between culture and cognition and highlights certain characteristics of traditional and contemporary East Asian and Chinese cognition. An individual's cognitive style determines how they perceive, analyze and solve problems. The societal context of an individual, including the prevailing culture, is one of several factors that play an important role in shaping their cognitive processes. Neuroscience research shows that brains of individuals from different cultures operate in different ways, even to solve the same problem. Further, recent advances in genetics have revealed that such differences can be reflected in the genes. This would allow some shared cognitive features in a society to persist over long periods of time, as we see in China. Thus one should not be surprised if those analyzing and solving policy problems take quite different approaches in different cultural contexts.

    The second line of reasoning lies in how a society's political and legal cultures may determine the nature of policy solutions and how they are implemented. Political culture shapes the manner in which political power is legitimized and exercised. This is closely related to legal culture which determines how the political elites and wider society perceive the role of law, and how the law and legal instruments may be used or not used to implement policy decisions. Once again, aspects of a society's political and legal cultures may have deep historical roots.

    The paper begins with a short section that summarizes the relevance of culture to public policy drawing on neuroscience and genetic studies, highlighting the importance of history (a fuller account is provided in the online Appendix). The subsequent section identifies a selection of distinctive features of energy policy design and implementation in China that I believe may have a cultural origin. Section 4 focuses on China's political and legal traditions and identifies features that seem to persist to the present day in the nature and operation of that Party-State. The final section draws some tentative conclusions concerning the role of culture in shaping policy design and implementation in China. The contribution of this paper is to reinforce existing calls for caution when seeking to transfer energy or other public policy approaches between countries with different cultures (Foster and Rana, 2019).

    This study has two key limitations. First, the fields of experimental psychology, cultural neuroscience and epigenetics remain contested. I have deliberately chosen those perspectives that permit the research topic of this paper to be explored further rather than those that would undermine this line of investigation. Second, the analysis spans many disciplines including public policy, politics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of science, genetics and neuroscience. For this reason, my inferences draw only on a limited range of literature in each field and are necessarily simplified. As a result, the aim of the paper is not to prove a point nor even to demonstrate the validity of an argument. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that the issue of how culture influences public policy in the energy and other sectors requires more rigorous and systematic study, in particular beyond the prevailing focus on the citizen.


    Many definitions of culture exist, but one that is appropriate for this analysis is the "causally distributed patterns of mental representations, their public expressions, and the resultant behaviors in given ecological contexts" (Medin et al., 2007). In other words, culture links the mind with language, action and environment. Culture is transmitted across a society and across generations principally through imitation and teaching, with language playing a central role (Bender and Beller, 2019).

    Culture, along with training, expertise and life experience, is one of the factors affecting reasoning and causal explanation. Traditional societies tend to apply concrete or intuitive reasoning based on experience. More sophisticated societies, especially those with a western cultural heritage, are more likely to apply formal logic and display a strong tendency to distinguish between right and wrong solutions to problems. In identifying causes, they are also more likely to focus on the role of specific actors. In contrast, other societies, such as China's, may apply more holistic thinking, assess the wider context and accept contradiction and ambiguity (Norenzayan et al., 2007; Bender and Beller, 2019). The caveat that applies to all such generalizations is that they have greater explanatory power at the group or societal level than for individuals (Ji and Yap, 2016).

    Technological advances in neuroscience have allowed researchers to investigate the links between culture and cognition. It has become clear that the human brain is highly plastic and that sustained use of certain cognitive tools rewires the brain. This rewiring draws on the interaction between the brain, the individual's perceptions and the environment. In different cultures, the same task may use either different parts of the brain or the same part of the brain with different intensity (Northoff, 2016). Cultural differences detectable in brain function include understanding of...

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