Exploring Why Authoritarian Regimes Are Responsive to Ordinary Citizens

By Jen PAN, Yiqing XU with data visualization by Young YANG

A growing body of research shows that authoritarian regimes can be responsive to ordinary citizens, but why is this the case?

Why do those in power expend any effort in dealing with citizens’ everyday complaints and demands when they face no pressure from electoral competition? Do officials in these regimes respond because they fear collective action of ordinary citizens or because responsiveness to citizens is a measure of co-option with particular attention to a core of supporters?

To answer these questions and explore the internal mechanisms of authoritarian responsiveness, my co-author Jennifer Pan and I conducted an online experiment among 2,103 Chinese counties.

We tested whether responsiveness among local officials comes from bottom-up citizen engagement, from top-down oversight of government superiors, or from preferential treatment toward loyal supporters.

Note: Figure 1 shows the probability of having government forums or active government forums in each prefecture in mainland China (as in May 2014). Dark colors represent a high probability. An active government forum is a forum that has publicly displayed requests and responses in the past 30 days.

In our experiment, we made four types of requests asking for assistance in obtaining social welfare benefits on local government web forums and examined how differences in these requests affected government responses.

  1. The baseline – a request to simply describe economic hardship.

  2. Collective action request – an intention to take some undefined action with other people who face similar hardship if the government cannot help.

  3. Tattling to superiors request – an intention to complain to upper levels of government if the government cannot help.

  4. Party loyalist request – identification as a loyal, long-standing Party member.

There are three main findings of our experiment.

First, we find that the collective action requests and tattling to superiors requests generate higher levels of responsiveness from Chinese local governments than the simple description of economic hardship; however, the identification as a Party loyalist, does not increase responsiveness substantially. With the baseline request, we received responses from approximately one third of counties. To put this number in context, one third is higher than responsiveness of U.S. state legislators to constituents (~20%) but lower than the responsiveness among members the U.S. congress (~40%) on certain issues. Adding the intention of collective action and tattling to superiors both increase response rates by 8-10 percentage points.

The second finding is that the collective action requests, compared with other types of requests, made the local government respond in a more public manner. This could be because local official are really concerned about social instability or because they believe responding publicly is a low-cost strategy to resolve similar problems among many citizens.

Third, we also find that local officials are more likely to provide pertinent and concrete information to citizens when receiving the collective action requests.

Note: Figure 2 shows the averages of main outcomes across four treatment and control conditions in our experiment.

A byproduct of this experiment is that we provide a measure of government online responsiveness at the prefecture level. Figure 3 below shows average response rate and public response rate in each prefecture in mainland China. A public response is a publicly displayed response by the government that is viewable by everyone who visit the government forum.

Note: Figure 3 shows average response rate and public response rate (as in May 2014) in each prefecture in mainland China.

Together, these results show that top-down mechanisms of oversight as well as some forms of bottom-up pressure exerted by citizens can increase government responsiveness in this particular authoritarian context. Regardless of whether responsiveness derives from top-down mechanisms or bottom up pressures, citizen engagement seems to be consequential.

Chen, J., Pan, J., & Xu, Y. (2016). Sources of authoritarian responsiveness: A field experiment in China. American Journal of Political Science, 60(2), 383-400.

Treatment,Response,Public Response,Response with detailed information
Control,23.15 ,15.34 ,12.7
Collective action,30.82 ,23.29 ,18.6
Tattling,29.99 ,19.11 ,16.9
Loyalty,26.46 ,18.52 ,13.0