Under conditions of non-democratic rule, when does environmental protest succeed (with the state making concessions) and when does it fail (with the state being unresponsive or resorting to repression)? What explains the specific protest strategies being utilised? Is the regime type pivotal in answering these questions? To see, I use a “most different” paired comparison of China, a single-party system, and Malaysia, a single-party dominant system. These dissimilar country cases produce similar outcomes, with each displaying mixed records of protest success and failure.
To find the cause, I peer beneath "regime types" to probe the calculus made by state officials over how to respond to environmental protest. This fine-grained analysis of the political opportunity structures under different regimes contributes to the debates on the causal role of institutions in environmental governance and contentious politics. I demonstrate that officials in both China and Malaysia, when confronted by environmental protest, make calculations about the sunk costs of their projects and the political costs of accommodative or repressive responses. To better assess the differences in national contexts and the similarities in calculations over costs, I use a framework of “institutional logics”, that are constituted by accountability requirements, state capacity, and ideological constraints. In accordance with the incentives institutional logics produce, state officials respond to environmental protest either with concessions or repression. Similarly, protesters act on these institutional logics, as they attempt to escalate the political costs of not meeting their demands.