2022 Student Research Project | Punctuated Equilibrium Theory in China: A Systematic Review and Research Priorities

Supervisor: Annemieke van den Dool, Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy

Student Researcher

Jialin Li is an undergraduate student at Duke Kunshan University, majoring in Political economy with a minor in public policy, and is interested in policy process theories and policy changes in China.

About the Project

The punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) shows that government policy is mostly stable with occasional drastic change. Although the existing PET literature predominantly focuses on democracies, recently, a small number of studies has started applying the theory to authoritarian countries. Autocracies are a fertile ground for testing the PET’s underlying mechanisms because they appear to experience less institutional friction but more informational restrictions than democracies. To deepen our understanding of the PET and the policy process in autocracies, we conduct a systematic review of 88 Chinese-language PET journal articles. We show that Chinese-language PET research is increasing in recent years. Different from the mainstream PET literature is that most Chinese studies are qualitative, while a key similarity is the loose application of the PET and weak operationalization of key components. While the studies in our review confirm a punctuated equilibrium pattern of policymaking in China, there is only limited evidence for more intense punctuations compared to democracies. Future PET research on China ought to focus on the nature of institutional friction and the role of information processing by policymakers. We argue for more international exchange to foster comparative research and to advance our understanding of the policy process in autocracies.  

Poster Presentation