Why do Chinese governments at various levels set up public complaint websites where citizen petitions and government responses can be reviewed by the general public? We argue that it is the result of two factors: strong signals sent by the central government to improve governance, and the availability of new technologies to promote policy innovation. To impress their superiors, local officials adopted newly available commercial technology to innovate existing citizen feedback systems , which presented a developmental trajectory from "openness," "integration," to "big data-driven prediction." Drawing on policy documents and interviews with local politicians and administrators, we provide a chronological perspective of how technical development, central government's signals and local decision-making have interacted in the past two decades to bring forth today's public complaint websites. The contingent and non-teleological nature of this development can also be applied to other policies such as the social credit system.
How good is media-elicited protest event data from autocracies, where the media are censored? Based on a source-specific model of event selection and a multi-source dataset of over 3,100 protests from three Chinese mega-cities, we show that major advantages in information gathering and reporting translate into social media capturing 116-times more protests than English-language international news, 74-times more than domestic news and 10-times more than dissident websites. Social media is most likely to cover small and non-violent events that other sources often ignore. Aside from anti-regime protests, it is less affected by censorship than often assumed. A validity test against public holidays and daily rainfall shows that social media data outperforms dissident websites and traditional news. Social media, and to a lesser extent dissident media, are promising new sources for protest event analysis in autocracies. News media-based event data from regimes with heavy censorship should be treated with caution.
Social unrest is on the rise in China. Few incidents of public demonstrations, disruptive action or riots occurred in the 1980s, but the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square marked a turning point. In 1993, there were already 8,700 ‘mass incidents’ recorded. By 2005, the number had grown tenfold to 87,000. Unofficial data estimated by a researcher at Tsinghua University suggests that there were 180,000 incidents in 2010.1 These figures could easily be interpreted as signs that the days of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule are numbered. However, the number of media outlets has proliferated since the 1990s; and with that, the incentive to report on eye-catching stories has increased. In comparing these incidents with the protests that toppled several authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring of 2011, a number of significant differences emerge. The scale of most protests in China is much smaller. Protestors are usually a homogenous group, such as peasants, taxi drivers, migrant workers or homeowners. Mobilisation across social groups, an important precondition for system-threatening collective action, is therefore largely absent. Further, despite rising unrest, the death toll in such activities remains low.
By the end of 2015, every second Chinese will have access to the Internet. The ability of an increasing number of Chinese people to communicate and consume online has inspired a wide array of scholarship on topics such as censorship, surveillance and the use of social media. While much of this research is premised on the notion of antagonistic state-society relations, the impact of state-sponsored and Internet-based channels of communication between government officials and Chinese individuals on the transformation of China’s one-party authoritarian regime remains poorly understood. This article addresses this issue by examining China’s e-government strategy in relation both to global developments and to the changing incentives that have driven political reform in China in the past two decades. It argues that the confluence of two challenges has benefited the integration of the Internet into China’s governance apparatus. The first challenge was that avoiding the Internet would have come at prohibitive economic cost. If economic development was to continue, there was no way past the Internet. The second challenge was China’s brittle governance apparatus at the time, which hindered economic development and was deemed unfit to meet the demands of an increasingly assertive population.