07 May 2021

PhD Essays on Prisoners, Pollution and Politicians in China

In his recent thesis in Development Economics, Shiqi Guo focuses on different dimensions of social and economic development in China. Employing field experiment and empirical analysis, he provides answers and insights into issues of social identity, agriculture, environment and political economy. 

Your PhD thesis comprises three essays on very different issues. Can you describe the research questions, methodology and findings of each one?

I wrote the first essay, “In-Group Bias in Prison”, with Pinghan Liang and Erte Xiaoaims. It aims to examine whether the in-group bias persists when the group identity – such as a prisoner identity – is negative or even stigmatised. Our questions were: Do prisoners respond to pro-social incentives? Are they willing to exert more efforts when their productions contribute to a charity? Are they more willing to help another prisoner or an outsider? Does in-group favouritism exist among them?

We used an experimental approach to answer these questions: we carefully designed a field experiment with a donation scheme in a Chinese prison, which gave the prison inmates the opportunity to work for a charity. We found evidence of pro-sociality and in-group favouritism among inmates. They increased efforts when their output contributed to a charity and worked even harder when the beneficiary of their efforts had a prisoner identity. However, inmates who have been incarcerated for a longer period exert relatively less efforts to help a prisoner beneficiary. This negative correlation was not observed when the beneficiary is an outsider.

The second essay is titled “How Does Straw Burning Affect Urban Air Quality in China?”. My questions were: How much do straw-burning activities contribute to air pollution? What are the temporal and spatial patterns of this pollution effect?

To provide answers to these questions, I conducted an empirical analysis based on a difference-in-differences strategy, combining the straw fires detected by satellites and the air pollution data from ground monitoring stations across China. I found a large and significant effect of straw fires on air pollution, with a clear temporal pattern: on the first day after burning, the index of air pollution in urban areas increases by 9.4%. This impact decreases over time and remains significant for at least eight days. It is larger for the upwind fires and is limited with a lower wind speed. In terms of distance, pollution is mostly driven by straw fires within 100 km from urban centres, but could also be influenced by fires as far as 600 km away. Among different pollutants, particulate matters (PM2.5 and PM10) are increased most by straw fires.

Finally, my third essay, “Winter Is Coming: Early-life Experiences and Politicians’ Decisions”, which I wrote with Nan Gao (Zhongnan University of Economics and Law) and Pinghan Liang, focuses on the role of local politicians’ early-life experiences in their policy decisions. We took the case of local leaders in China and examined how their fiscal policymaking was affected by their early-life experience of China’s Great Famine. We used the biographies of the County Party Secretaries and the county-level fiscal data, and exploited the variations in their workplace allocation in the Chinese political system. 

We found that the local leaders who experienced a severe famine in early childhood spend more on agriculture and social security when they are in power. This leads to the development of the agricultural sector and more grain production, suggesting a stronger preference for food sufficiency among such leaders. 

Can you give an example of a topical issue which your thesis helps enlighten?

The burning of crop straw residues after harvest is a common practice by famers in many developing countries. Over the past decade, this practice has been debated as one of the main causes of severe air pollution in China. However, the precise polluting effect of straw burning and the key sources of air pollution remain controversial. My second essay employs the daily records on straw burning and air pollution all over China for a two-year period. It provides a clear estimate of the temporal pattern of straw-burning pollution. It also discusses comprehensively how this straw-burning effect varies subject to other relevant factors.

What about its social implications?

Stigmatised groups have existed throughout human history and are also prevalent in contemporary society. Among others, these include criminals, and ethnic and religious minorities. My first essay provides the first field experimental evidence of the in-group bias in stigmatised groups. It also highlights the importance of social interaction in the formation of in-group bias.

What are you doing now?

I am currently an Assistant Professor (with tenure track) at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. 

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Shiqi Guo defended his PhD thesis in Development Economics in February 2021. Associate Professor Martina Viarengo presided the committee, which included Professor Jean-Louis Arcand, supervisor, and Harald Hau, Professor at the Geneva School of Economics and Management (GSEM) of the University of Geneva.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Guo, Shiqi. “Three Essays in Development Microeconomics.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository. 

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Astanin/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.