Author:Wang, Alex L.
  1. Introduction 701 II. Conceptualizing Symbolic Legitimation 705 A. Models of Legitimacy. 705 B. Functional and Symbolic Reform 710 C Uses of Symbolic Reform 713 III. The Structure of Symbolic Reform 716 A. What Does Symbolic Reform Look Like?. 717 1. Tools 717 2 Reform Style 722 B. When is Symbohc Reform Decoupled from Actual Performance?. 723 1. Uncertainty 724 2 Populist Politics 111 IV. Cases 730 A. The Symbolism of Eco-Civilization Reform 731 1. Signals 731 2. Structure & Style 737 a. Centralization & Tightened Party Control 739 b. Bureaucratic Mobilization 744 c. Public Supervision 747 3. Uncertainty & Populist Politics 747 B. Lower Levels of Uncertainty: Air Pollution 749 C. Higher Levels of Uncertainty: Soil Pollution and Ozone-Depleting Substances. 752 D. Mixed Levels of Uncertainty: Climate Change. 755 V. Conclusion 758 I. INTRODUCTION

    The construction of ecological civilization is ... central to the realization of the great rejuvenation of the nation and the China dream. - Xi Jinping (1)

    This Article is about the symbolic role of governance reform in China and its relationship to actual performance and state legitimacy. China's authoritarian leaders have long relied on performance legitimacy--economic development and maintenance of social stability--as the core basis of their rule. I have argued elsewhere that law has been marshaled mainly in service of attaining these performance objectives and operationalizing this performance-based model of governance. (2) In my area of research, environmental protection, scholars have largely focused on how to reduce the distance between law on the books and law in practice. In such contexts, "performance" has been defined by such functional metrics as pollution reduction, improved energy efficiency, and the shutdown of outdated power plants and factories.

    But apart from any results that Chinese governance may generate, I argue herein that the entire project of governance reform can be structured in a way that supports overall state legitimacy. Put another way, broad-based governance reform can signal information to citizens and other audiences about state performance, nationalist strength, tradition, and other values that bolster legitimacy. The process of reform is not only about attaining performance goals as commonly supposed, but is also itself a kind of performance. While there is a voluminous literature on the role of propaganda and symbolic politics in authoritarian settings, this focus on the reform process itself as a means of symbolic legitimation is an aspect of China's "authoritarian resilience" that existing scholarship has virtually ignored. (3)

    In past millennia, this political function of rule might have been fulfilled through the mobilization of state resources in the service of large-scale infrastructure development. The Great Wall of China, for example, was ostensibly meant for defense, but the project of building the wall itself also served as a symbol of state strength, capacity to marshal resources, and a focus of bureaucratic institutional attention. (4) And critics have argued that the Great Wall was ineffective for defense, but rather successful in terms of symbolic benefits for the state. (5)

    In China today, I argue, governance reforms--policy, legislation, enforcement campaigns, institutional design, and even actual outcomes--play a similar symbolic or performative role apart from the functional purposes of state action. (6) This goes beyond (but includes) mere symbolic legislation--laws with aspirational goals that signal certain messages, but are unlikely to be met in practice. (7) It is also different than propaganda as a tool for convincing the public that the state is performing, although propaganda is certainly an important part of the effort. (8) This is the use of large-scale, technocratic governance reform action in a way that allows China to signal legitimacy or "pass" as a strong, high-performance state, regardless of actual results. (9) The very design of governance reform conveys information and provides additional political value. This act of "performing performance" also signals competence and commitment to the people (i.e., performance-orientation), tradition, nationalist strength, and a host of other positive values.

    Central to the effect are high levels of uncertainty, whether due to complexity, information gaps, or state control of information. Populist politics further exacerbates uncertainty and diverts citizen focus away from actual results of reform. These factors render citizens both less able and less willing to verify and hold the state accountable for its performance.

    The intuition here is that citizens, faced with the difficult task of evaluating actual outcomes, see reform actions (or inputs) as proxies for results. Theories of performance legitimacy typically assume a necessary connection between performance and legitimacy. Symbolic legitimation posits the idea that performance-based legitimacy can become decoupled from actual results. This may be due to bounded rationality, societal self-deception, or tribal instincts heightened by populism. What's more, where outcomes are difficult to evaluate, citizens may not seek to understand results at all, instead relying on general impressions of competency, strength, and commitment as markers of legitimacy. Put another way, reform inputs themselves become positive outputs that influence public views of state legitimacy. At stake is the question of state accountability. The concept of symbolic legitimation does not suggest that the Chinese state will not deliver any performance at all or that governance reforms are a sham. But, for leaders with bad intentions, this offers a powerful tool of misdirection and deception. Even leaders with more benign intentions may find symbolic reform to be an irresistible insurance policy against irreconcilable policy objectives, or political and administrative barriers to implementation that would otherwise undermine public faith in the leadership.

    As a case study, this Article will examine China's embrace of green development and the pursuit of what Chinese Party-state officials call "ecological civilization" ([phrase omitted]). China is engaged in an extraordinary array of environmental reforms. In some instances, these reforms seem to have borne fruit, yet uncertainty about results and political constraints within the Chinese system raise the possibility that many other reforms will be merely symbolic in nature.

    This Article is organized in three parts. Part II establishes the conceptual framework for symbolic legitimation. The discussion here engages a core debate in the legal scholarship on China: the comparative legitimacy of performance-based models of governance versus liberal democratic rule of law regimes. Chinese leaders have emphasized the former. Critics of the regime have focused on the latter. Rather than examining the capacity of the system to deliver actual performance, the focus here is on the role of reform in generating the belief in performance and other bases of state legitimacy through symbolic reform.

    Part III describes the structure of symbolic reform--its governance tools and reform style--and identifies features of China's governance system that render reform more likely to be merely symbolic, or decoupled from functional performance. It argues that uncertainty about outcomes and populist politics that delegitimize critics are particularly important foundations of symbolic reform in China's authoritarian governance setting.

    Part IV explains how China's much-publicized "war on pollution" and its efforts at eco-civilization reform can be understood in terms of symbolic legitimation. (10) But the likelihood that reform will only be symbolic varies across subject areas. In some areas, like air pollution, conditions (particularly the high visibility of smog) suggest the likelihood of more functional reform. (11) But other areas--such as soil pollution, toxic chemicals, or ozone depleting substances--that are much more difficult to monitor remain ripe for purely symbolic reform. Climate change regulation represents an intermediate case with factors cutting in both directions. This Part analyzes these case studies in light of the dynamics of symbolic reform identified earlier in the Article.

    The Article concludes with thoughts on potential lines of further inquiry. These include more in-depth examination of the costs and benefits of symbolic reform, distributional justice problems, and the role of citizens themselves in enabling symbolic action. One caveat is in order. This Article is not an empirical study of how citizens actually receive or interpret the signals sent by reform. The theory here is that symbolic reform will tend to enhance citizen belief in the legitimacy of the ruling regime, but future research is needed to better understand how this phenomenon plays out in practice. (12) Existing research has shown that public belief in the legitimacy of China's central government is high. (13) The intuition of this Article is that symbolic reform plays an important role in sustaining this level of support.

    To be clear, symbolic uses of law and governance appear in any country, regardless of region or regime type. This Article shines a light on the way symbolic reform works in China's authoritarian governance setting, offering a fresh perspective from which to understand Chinese state action. At the same time, the findings here will be of interest to those concerned about symbolic politics and the growing impact of information manipulation and populism on governance in the United States and other countries.


    1. Models of Legitimacy

      Leaders of all nations need legitimacy to maintain power. State legitimacy, according to Seymour Lipset, is "the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most...

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