The information dilemma: How ICT strengthen or weaken authoritarian rule
This paper introduces a model that links ICT management to the consolidation of autocratic regimes. At its centre is the hypothesis that ICT can help both to undermine and to sustain autocratic rule. A second hypothesis is that the demise of an autocracy can be prevented, or at least delayed, if autocrats actively use ICT to enhance surveillance, accountability, indoctrination, and participation. This means that controlling ICT is not (only) a zero-sum game that is played between activists and censors. Perhaps more important is the role of ICT in the consolidation of an autocracy. Hence, popular access to ICT might or might not help undermine authoritarian rule, but if skillfully used, will definitely make a regime more resilient. The plausibility of the model will be illustrated by means of a brief comparison of two contrasting cases, China and Myanmar.
Statsvetenskaplig tidskrift · Årgång 115 · 2013 / 4
Ph.d. Christian Göbel is active at University of Vienna, Department of East Asian Studies and Lund
University, Department of Political Science.
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
e Information Dilemma:
How ICT Strengthen or
Weaken Authoritarian Rule
The Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule
This paper introduces a model that links ICT management to the consolidation of
autocratic regimes. At its centre is the hypothesis that ICT can help both to under-
mine and to sustain autocratic rule. A second hypothesis is that the demise of an
autocracy can be prevented, or at least delayed, if autocrats actively use ICT to
enhance surveillance, accountability, indoctrination, and participation. This means
that controlling ICT is not (only) a zero-sum game that is played between activists
and censors. Perhaps more important is the role of ICT in the consolidation of an
autocracy. Hence, popular access to ICT might or might not help undermine author-
itarian rule, but if skillfully used, will deﬁnitely make a regime more resilient. The
plausibility of the model will be illustrated by means of a brief comparison of two
contrasting cases, China and Myanmar.
is paper is concerned with the political economy of upgrading and managing
information and communication technologies (ICT) in authoritarian regimes.
ICT that are of interest to this study are Internet-based and non-Internet based
digital networks, satellite systems, mobile phones and computers, as well as
radio, television and landline telephones. Despite the general acknowledge-
ment that the control of information is crucial for the persistence of autocratic
rule, there is no agreement about whether the improved communication ﬂows
that ICT facilitate are beneﬁcial or harmful for autocratic rule. On the one hand,
scholars like Larry Diamond regard ICT as “liberation technology” (Diamond
1 The research for this project was funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet Dnr.
2012-5630 and 2011-1495). The China Innovation Group, which consists of Tommy Shih, Barbara
Schulte, Marina Svensson, Stefan Brehm and myself, has served as a midwife to the ideas put for-
ward in this paper, and I am grateful for the many discussions in the context of this group. Finally, I
wish to thank Merete Bech Seeberg, Barbara Geddes, and Michael Wahman for their detailed com-
ments on a previous version of this paper.
), because mobile phones and the Internet enable citizens to organize and
coordinate resistance against autocratic rule. In contrast, other scholars high-
light that blogs, microblogs and other social media do not only serve regime
opponents, but can also be used by autocrats as a thermometer of public opin-
ion and to monitor local oﬃcials (King et al. ). Even more, the “liberation
technology” perspective misses the fact that ICT can also serve to stabilize auto-
cratic regimes, for example by enhancing surveillance, accountability, indoctri-
nation, and participation (Deibert & Rohozinski ; Zureik ). It follows
from these observations that improved information ﬂows have the potential
both to strengthen and to undermine autocratic rule, and the puzzle is how
autocratic regime elites deal with this dilemma.
In the remainder of this paper, I will ﬁrst derive a model that links infor-
mation management to the consolidation of autocratic regimes. At its centre is
the hypothesis that ICT can help both to undermine and to sustain autocratic
rule. is dual-use character of ICT confronts autocrats with an “information
dilemma”: blocking ICT stiﬂes economic development and thereby diminishes
the legitimacy of a regime. On the other hand, broadening popular access to
ICT stimulates the economy, but at the same time gives people access to “lib-
eration technology”. Once economic growth no longer suﬃces to prop up the
regime, ICT might be used to mobilize against autocracy. A second hypothesis
is that the delegitimation of the regime can be prevented, or at least delayed,
if autocrats broaden popular access to ICT, and at the same time employ ICT to
modernize the regime. is means that the use of ICT is not (only) a zero-sum
game that is played between activists and censors. Perhaps more important is
the role of ICT in consolidating an autocracy, i.e. improving its despotic, infra-
structural and discursive power. ese are two diﬀerent processes that need
to be separated analytically. Popular access to ICT might or might not help to
undermine authoritarian rule, but if skilfully used, ICT will deﬁnitely assist in
making a regime more resilient. An interesting counterfactual that cannot be
explored in this analysis is whether the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt would
have collapsed if the government had used ICT more skilfully. In other words,
it is perhaps not the liberation technology factor, but the lack of adaptability
that brings down autocracies. e plausibility of the model will be illustrated
by means of a brief comparison of two contrasting cases: Myanmar is an autoc-
racy that blocked ICT, ruled by repression and was eventually forced to liber-
alize. China exempliﬁes an autocracy that has achieved considerable stability
by enhancing social access to ICT, while at the same time using ICT for regime
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 387
2. ICT and autocracy
Scholars have long been doubtful about the compatibility of autocracy and ICT.
For example, Helen Milner found autocracies less likely than democracies to
provide popular access to the Internet (Milner ). Jacob Groshek presented
further evidence for the incompatibility of Internet and autocracy: if autocrats
do invest in a digital communication infrastructure, this tends to have a democ-
ratizing eﬀect (Groshek ). e paradigm of the incompatibility of ICT and
autocracy is corroborated by media reporting on how cyberspace has become
an arena for mobilizing against autocrats (Howard & Parks ), and Larry
Diamond’s forceful and compelling argument that the Internet and mobile
phones serve as “liberation technology” for people suﬀering dictatorship has
stimulated a number of insightful single-case studies (Diamond ).
If ICT are indeed potent weapons against oppression, the question remains
why a) autocrats do not ban them completely and b) why some autocracies
have not shown signs of instability despite broad popular access to the Internet
and mobile phones. One possible answer is that the relationship between
ICT access and democratization is less straightforward that these studies sug-
gest. In a pointed reply to Diamond’s contribution, Ronald Deibert and Rafal
Rohozinski, two of the foremost international experts on Internet censorship
and cyber warfare, argue that the “liberation technology” perspective suﬀers
from a perception bias: “much of the popular reporting about cyberspace and
social mobilization is biased toward liberal-democratic values”, and the harm-
ful impacts of ICT “tend to be obscured from popular view by the media and
underexplored by academics” (Deibert & Rohozinski : ).
In other words, while powerful and rooted in rich empirical evidence, the
“liberation technology” position disregards the fact that modern ICT can also
help to stabilize autocracies (Deibert & Rohozinski : -). Gary King,
Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts have shown in a recent ground-breaking
study of the Chinese censorship regime that the government allows criticism
of the regime, but censors information that might spur collective action, con-
cluding that the Chinese government’s strategy might be to prevent collective
action while at the same time
us[ing] social media to obtain eﬀective measures of the views of the populace
about speciﬁc public policies and experiences with the many parts of Chinese
government and the performance of public oﬃcials (King et al. : ).
While much of the literature debating the impact of ICT on autocracy has
focused on how the Internet can give protesters a voice, and how governments
seek to control information ﬂows in society by censoring online communica-
tion, the question how autocrats can use ICT to strengthen their regime has not
been studied systematically. As country studies have shown, surveillance tech-
nologies such as Internet ﬁltering, biometrics, audio-surveillance and Radio
Frequency Identiﬁcation (RFID) can help to control and even prevent social
unrest (Göbel & Ong ), and subtle propaganda disseminated through pub-
lic media outlets can be eﬀective in persuading people to support authoritarian
rulers (Stockmann & Gallagher ). Finally, participatory public administra-
tion can give autocrats insight into the desires and grievances of the popula-
tion and allows them to adjust their policies accordingly. In this way, modern
ICT might even be able to overcome the “dictator’s dilemma” (Wintrobe ):
the more a dictator relies on repression for stability, the less sure he is “how
much support he has among the general population, as well as among smaller
groups with the power to depose him”, and the more he must resort to even
more repression (Wintrobe : ).
While Wintrobe conceptualizes various combinations of repression and
cooptation as solutions to this dilemma, surveillance, participation and per-
suasion are not among them. However, channels of communication that enable
subjects to voice their complaints anonymously and the monitoring of elec-
tronic communication ﬂows might enable autocrats to understand better the
aspirations and grievances of their subjects, and mass media could be used to
manipulate popular preferences (Göbel ). Acting on such information can
generate legitimacy beyond the “winning coalition” in an autocracy, namely,
individuals and groups that support the regime in exchange for access to special
privileges (Bueno de Mesquita : Chapter ).
ICT do not determine revolutions, but they can be used by regime oppo-
nents and the government alike to communicate and organize more eﬀectively
than without ICT (Farrell ). Although it has not been proven that unfet-
tered communication can indeed bring down regimes, the fact that virtually
all autocracies censor communication ﬂows does show clearly that autocrats
see ICT as a risk. Much more straightforward is the impact of ICT on regime
performance: as will be shown below, ICT can enhance a government’s capac-
ity to suppress, organize, co-opt and persuade social actors, thereby strength-
ening the regime against legitimacy crises and other challenges to its survival.
ese processes are analytically separate from the zero-sum game of ﬁghting
over the control of information ﬂows. Why political elites decide to embrace or
block ICT, and how they manage to use them to prop up the regime, is a topic
that should be studied intensively.
3. eoretical model
Two terms at the heart of this analysis need to be clariﬁed: autocracy and auto-
cratic consolidation. As for autocracy, I follow Geddes, Wright and Frantz in
deﬁning the term as any regime that is not democratic, i.e. where the govern-
ment did not achieve power by means of a “direct, reasonably fair competitive
election in which at least ten percent of the total population […] was eligible to
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 389
vote; or indirect election by a body at least percent of which was elected in
direct, reasonably fair competitive elections; or constitutional succession to a
democratically elected executive” (Geddes et al. ).
e second concept used in the paper is the consolidation of autocratic
regimes (Göbel ). Autocratic consolidation is deﬁned as a “deliberate state
project to improve a regime’s capabilities for governing society” and rests on the
insight that just like democracies, autocracies need to “organize” and “deepen”
(Göbel : ) their rule so they can meet social demands, stimulate innova-
tion and avoid or mitigate crises.
Building on Michael Mann’s (Mann ) inﬂuential diﬀerentiation of state
power, I argue that autocratic consolidation encompasses the build-up of
capacities necessary to exert three kinds of power: “despotic power”, “infra-
structural power”, and “discursive power” (Göbel : ). Unlike Mann, who
understands despotic power as a mandate for arbitrariness (Mann : ),
I use the term for hard repression. Infrastructural power denotes the logistics
of everyday political control and depends on the institutionalization, diﬀer-
entiation and social embedding of state power. Discursive power refers to the
power to change (or at least inﬂuence) the cognitive ﬁlters through which peo-
ple interpret and evaluate their environment (Göbel : ).
e propositions outlined above are condensed in a model of the use of
ICT in and by autocratic regimes. If these propositions are true, then intro-
ducing ICT is a risk for autocratic regime elites, but one that can be managed.
On the one hand, blocking information ﬂows will prevent economic develop-
ment and thereby cause popular dissatisfaction with the regime. On the other
hand, improving information ﬂows by introducing ICT is likely to stimulate
growth and generate support at ﬁrst, but might in the long run undermine the
regime, because it is diﬃcult for autocracies to generate legitimacy (Huntington
: ). Autocrats usually justify the limitation of personal freedoms with the
promise of speedy modernization. Once a regime is modernized, autocracy has
rendered itself obsolete. Arguably, this process can be accelerated by popular
access to ICT, which can be used to gather and disseminate sensitive infor-
mation and organize resistance. erefore, if autocratic regime elites decide to
popularize ICT, they will need to devise strategies to maximize the stabilizing
impact of ICT, while at the same time minimizing their destabilizing impact.
Successful autocracies will enhance popular access to ICT, but also control
access to information. More importantly, however, they will employ advanced
digital technologies to strengthen state capacity. In particular, modern ICT will
be employed to enhance an autocracy’s capacity to wield despotic, infrastruc-
tural and discursive power.
As for despotic power, ICT can be used to counter and prevent unrest by
developing and applying surveillance technologies such as wire-tapping, audio-
surveillance, audio-ﬁltering, the ﬁltering of Internet content, Internet policing,
tracking persons and goods with the help of Radio Frequency Identiﬁcation
(RFID) technology, Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic
Information Systems (GIS). ICT beneﬁt infrastructural power, which includes
capacities to levy and distribute government revenue, a functioning bureau-
cracy as well as communication channels between government and social
groups, because they enhance the feedback loops into the regime and improve
communication ﬂows within the regime. E-government can fulﬁl both pur-
poses, because it links the aggregation and processing of social preferences.
Finally, ICT can help autocrats gain by increasing their capacity to wield discur-
sive power. ICT can be used to form, adapt and disseminate a coherent and con-
sistent oﬃcial ideology and to create authoritative, yet compelling narratives
of crucial events that will be distributed through the education system and the
mass media. In particular, ICT use itself can be the subject of such indoctrina-
tion, for example in techno-nationalist propaganda (Kang & Segal ) and
in school curricula aimed at increasing the “technological literacy” of young
children (World Bank ). In eﬀect, autocratic rulers will try to manipulate
individual preferences in such a way that people become less likely to use ICT
as a “liberation technology” (Diamond ).
ese processes are repetitive, as information on the impact of previous
policies is fed back into the regime, and guides the reﬁnement of existing poli-
cies or the development of new ones. e following sections will illustrate the
model and provide a ﬁrst plausibility test by comparing how the regime elites
in China and Myanmar tackled the information dilemma.
4. ICT and Authoritarian Consolidation in China
China and Myanmar oﬀer themselves for comparison because of their simi-
larities of context in the ﬁrst stages of their development. Regime elites in both
countries were faced with the task of transferring military structures into a
state apparatus in the making, but had only limited resources at their disposal
because of the agrarian character of their economies. In addition, both regimes
had to overcome the resistance to the new regime from minorities and other
social groups. Finally, the early years in the two regimes progressed in similar
ways. In both countries, the elites started with regime consolidation shortly
after they had come to power, but quickly stopped: confronted with the risks
that further reforms entailed, they hollowed out the existing structures, milita-
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 391
rized state-society relations and degenerated into underdeveloped and isolated
In contrast to the stagnating and repressive military regime of Myanmar
(Croissant & Kühn : -), which only recently showed signs of liber-
alization, the regime elites in China decided as long ago as the late s to
stimulate economic change. Although both regimes are nearly identical in their
FreedomHouse and Polity IV values² and can be classiﬁed as hard autocracies,
they are very diﬀerent as regards the way in which they employ ICT for regime
A comparison of the diﬀusion of ICT in the two countries illustrates this
well. e remarkable diﬀerence between China and Myanmar today easily
blinds us to the fact that as late as , their ICT penetration rates nearly con-
verged. For example, only . percent of the Chinese population, and . per-
cent in Myanmar owned a landline (World Bank a). In China, the number
of landline telephones increased to per in , but fell to per in
. is decrease is the result of leapfrogging in telecommunications: new
users no longer apply for landlines, but communicate solely by mobile phones.
Whereas in only . per persons owned a cellular phone, . percent
of the population did so in . e Internet spread with equal speed: today,
nearly half of all Chinese are Internet users, and about one third have their own
broadband access. In stark contrast to these ﬁgures, only per Burmese had
2 In the 2011 FreedomHouse Index China scored 7 on political and 6 on civil liberties, while Myanmar
received the worst score on both dimensions (FreedomHouse 2012). The two countries received
very low scores on the Polity IV measure as well (China: −7/-7; Myanmar: −6/-6) (Marshall & Jaggers
2011a and Marshall & Jaggers 2011b).
Figure 1. ICT penetration in selected countries.
Source: Data derived from World Bank 2013a.
a mobile phone or a landline, and only one per used the Internet in
(World Bank a).
Figure illustrates the development of ICT in China and Myanmar in com-
parison to the rest of the world. e ﬁgure shows what proportion of the pop-
ulation, on average, has access to landlines, has a mobile phone subscription,
and uses the internet. As can be seen, China develops in sync with those coun-
tries that the World Bank today classiﬁes as upper middle income countries.
Myanmar, however, is far below the low income stratum. What the graph also
shows is that ICT use picked up markedly between and , which is
exactly when the regime began to liberalize. Hence, political change has led
regime elites in Myanmar to embrace ICT instead of continuing to block them.
is provides some evidence for the assertion that an information dilemma
exists for authoritarian regimes, that regime elites had previously decided
to answer this dilemma by blocking ICT, and that they have now chosen to
provide people with greater access to information technology. e diﬀerence
is especially marked for mobile phone subscriptions per people, which
increased from . to . between and !
e following paragraphs illustrate that these developments are tightly
linked to regime consolidation. e blockage of ICT in Myanmar not only hin-
dered development, but also meant that the regime elites had no chance to
increase state capacity by improving information ﬂows within the regime, and
between the population and the regime. Arguably, this is the classic situation
that Wintrobe describes: afraid of the population, the Burmese rulers imposed
a terror regime on the population to prevent them from challenging the regime.
In contrast, the Chinese regime elites have allowed ICT to proliferate. On the
one hand, this has facilitated economic growth. On the other hand, the avail-
ability of modern ICT has enabled the regime to enhance its infrastructural,
despotic and discursive power.
e analytical framework of authoritarian consolidation introduced above
structures the analysis, which begins with the analysis of the three most impor-
tant component parts of infrastructural power: extractive and redistributive
capacity, the quality of the bureaucracy, and the social embeddedness of a
Extractive and redistributive capacity. An important issue that is fre-
quently overlooked in the comparative study of autocratic regimes is the fact
that increasing infrastructural power is expensive. Our two cases illustrate that
agrarian countries are at a disadvantage: the value-added of agriculture is low,
and this translates into low budgetary revenues. Without access to proﬁtable
natural resources or foreign credit, regime elites in agrarian economies are
forced to engineer a structural change of the economy, which entails channel-
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 393
ling as much as possible of the low value-added of agricultural production into
the build-up of industry and/or allowing foreign direct investments (Rostow
). Moving economic production up the value chain, a regime can enhance
its tax base and increase performance legitimacy. However, Figure indicates
that this is not possible without allowing ICT to proliferate. In essence, the
information dilemma converges with a liberalization dilemma. But why would
regimes seek to avoid liberalization?
One possible explanation is that authoritarian regime elites are foresighted
enough to avoid being driven towards the performance dilemma. e develop-
ments in our cases suggest a second cause: countries that do not allow foreign
direct investments need to decrease the proﬁt margin of the peasants so that
they can free resources for building up an industrial sector. In the agricultural
societies that both countries were, this entailed a huge risk of alienating the
majority of the population.
As indicated by the growth of the agricultural sector in Myanmar, the
Burmese regime elites sought to avoid this risk. After usurping power by a mil-
itary coup, Ne Win turned to the peasant majority for support and national-
ized private enterprises, which then began to falter (Alamgir : ). As a
result of underperformance in industry and low tax revenues from agriculture,
Myanmar’s budgetary revenue fell from % of GDP in to .% in
(Taylor : ), and reached a historical low of .% of GDP in (Taylor
: ). As for redistributive capacity, most of what little the government
was able to extract from the economy was reinvested into the rural areas, where
World Bank statistics indicate a moderate increase in living conditions: in the
early s, the number of tractors, food production, school entrance rates and
life expectancy all increased (World Bank a). In contrast, the urban areas
were neglected to a degree that incited the students to take to the streets in
(Slater : ).
e situation is very diﬀerent for the PRC. While Ne Win strengthened agri-
culture and the rural areas at the cost of industry and the cities, Mao Zedong
concentrated his eﬀorts on siphoning oﬀ agricultural surplus to strengthen
heavy industry and the cities – with disastrous results. Although the focus of
development shifted from heavy to light industry and from plan to market after
Mao’s death in , industry and cities continued to be subsidized by agricul-
ture. However, although China’s economic growth looked impressive on paper,
the government was unable to control inﬂation and the growing income gap
between the cities and the countryside (Naughton ), and it did not stimu-
late technological learning. Although Deng Xiaoping in named “Science
and Technology” as one of “Four Modernizations” to be pursued, public sector
expenditures for research and development (R&D) were quite low until the
mid-s. As a consequence ICT penetration was still rather low: only .
per persons owned a landline, and nearly noone a cellphone (World Bank
a).Inﬂation, corruption and rising inequality combined with low levels of
state capacity to cause a regime crisis in both countries within the space of a
year. Myanmar saw mass anti-regime protests in the summer of , China in
the spring of , and both used brute force to restore public order.
After the immediate crisis was over, the regime elites in Myanmar chose
repression over adaptation and blocking ICT instead of improving commu-
nication ﬂows. In contrast, the Chinese authorities engaged in the interlock-
ing processes of further liberalizing the economy and strengthening popu-
lar access to information technologies. Beginning in , export processing
zones were established, and China was opened for limited foreign direct invest-
ments. Concurrently, the percentage of the population that owned a telephone
increased nearly percent year on year (World Bank a).
Quality of the bureaucracy. e World Bank uses the indicator of “govern-
ment eﬀectiveness” to measure the quality of bureaucracy (World Bank b).
Whereas Myanmar plummeted from −. to −. on this score (the lowest
score is −.) between and , China’s score improved from −. to
+. (highest score is .). In global comparison, this locates Myanmar at the
very bottom and China in the middle ranks of bureaucratic quality. ese ﬁg-
ures do not capture the early years of the Ne Win regime, where the quality
of the bureaucracy was at ﬁrst improved through a number of administrative
reforms. Between and personnel on the administrative payroll dou-
bled, and an increasing part of the budget was invested in the improvement
of the bureaucracy (Taylor : ). However, growing debt led the Ne Win
Regime to neglect the bureaucracy. Corruption increased, eﬃciency decreased
(Englehart ), and after the military coup in the administration was
integrated into the military apparatus, which did not lead to any improvements.
In China, the impact of integrating ICT into the regime is reﬂected in pub-
lic administration reforms: public administration has become computerized,
which makes petty corruption far more diﬃcult than before. In addition, the
Chinese government has been making use of e-government to enhance trans-
parency and to experiment with carefully circumscribed public participation
(Göbel & Chen ). E-government oﬀers novel ways to enhance legitimacy
by improving the responsiveness to public demands. Almost every government
unit is now required to have an online portal. However, these portals vary in
their quality and the degree of participation they allow. At a minimum, peo-
ple are informed about laws, policies and government activities (Zhou ).
Frequently, government websites also allow people to leave messages (which
are unlikely to be answered). Such websites are easy to set up and maintain.
ey provide a semblance of transparency, but are not likely to make people
feel empowered (for an overview over latest developments, see Noesselt ).
A few localities have established online petitioning and complaint systems.
Here, people can express grievances by registering on a website and ﬁling an
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 395
online complaint. Registration allows them to track the processing status of
their submission, and rate the outcome. In addition, the website provides ref-
erence information such as the number of submissions, average processing
time and issues that are currently under investigation or are already resolved.
Although such platforms are not powerful enough to engage major political
problems, they create considerable support by resolving issues that are small
but very relevant for the lives of the urban population. Examples in case include
damaged infrastructure, quarrels with the management organisations of res-
idential buildings, overcharged administrative fees and other forms of petty
corruption. In addition, they enable oﬃcials to observe in real time where and
how often particular problems occur, and how quickly they are solved. As the
data is delivered directly by the public, bypassing local governments, it serves
as an objective measure of a department’s performance. Abuse of power can be
quickly detected and acted upon. ³
ough not suitable for tackling grand political corruption, e-participation
can reduce petty administrative corruption and thereby create legitimacy with-
out changing the fundamentals of the political system.
A citizen’s belief in the legitimacy of a regime is formed not only, and perhaps
not mainly, by a regime’s objective achievements, but by the individual percep-
tions and interpretations of these achievements. e literature on “framing”
processes illustrates how individual attitudes are formed by the dispersion of
values and discourses through the media and the education system (see Chong
& Druckman ). Most of the existing scholarship on framing examines
opinion formation in democracies, but has so far neglected autocratic regimes.
However, recent research on opinion formation in China presents credible evi-
dence that the government’s skilful instrumentalisation of popular media and
the education system can increase the resilience of autocracies (Stockmann &
Gallagher ; Kennedy ; Li ). Discursive power not only aﬀects indi-
vidual attitudes towards a regime, but also serves to facilitate the building of an
environment conducive to technological innovation.
e management of discourses can help regime elites to create faith in the
government, to marginalize concerns about developmental risks, and to imbue
diﬀerent social groups with speciﬁc roles or tasks in transforming a country
into a knowledge economy. As is the case with public administration, modern
ICT can be deployed to increase a government’s discursive power. e impact of
improved discursive power on beliefs of legitimacy can again be observed only
in China, and not in Myanmar.
Myanmar. In order to mitigate the volatility of Myanmar’s multi-eth-
3 Information gathered through on-site research by the author in August 2012 and July 2013.
nic society, the regime made use of a catch-all ideology that fused elements
of Buddhism, Marxism and Leninism (Taylor : -). Even though it
remains unclear if such an across-the-board ideology was able to kindle ﬂames
of patriotism, Taylor highlights that government propaganda at least served to
familiarize the population with concepts such as state, government, admin-
istration and nation (Taylor : ). As was the case with infrastructural
power, the regime’s discursive power was also reduced with the coup. On
the one hand, the regime gave up one pillar of the legitimizing ideology when
it turned away from Socialism (Slater ) and replaced it with the gloriﬁca-
tion of the armed forces as the saviour of the nation and guardian of Myanmar’s
independence (McCarthy ; Steinberg ; an : ). Yet, and this
illustrates the impact of ICT on discursive power very well, it is questionable if
this unattractive ideology even reached its addressees. With the dismantling of
the Burmese Socialist Program Party and its mass organizations, which were
the regime’s main instruments of indoctrination, the regime cut its channels
into society. e Burmese mass media were unﬁt to replace these channels:
according to omson Gale, a population of million has access to only four
million radios, , TV sets, , computers and , broadband con-
nections (omson Gale ). e two government newspapers circulated
, copies each, but magazines ran merely a few hundred copies. e lack
of channels of communication between regime and population thus made it
diﬃcult to produce and disseminate persuasive propaganda.
China. Conservative elites in the CCP attributed the crisis at least
partly to the neglect of propaganda and “thought work” in the aftermath of
Mao’s death. is neglect was seen has having manifested itself in the increas-
ing popularity of Western democratic ideas, which undermined the CCP’s
claim to absolute power (Brady : ). Beginning in , the regime ﬁrst
curbed what little autonomy the Chinese media had been allowed, and then
instructed the propaganda authorities to help maintain CCP one-party rule by
producing and disseminating persuasive frames. One important aspect of dis-
cursive power is that frames are not static, but are continuously adjusted to
political, economic or social changes and to changing preferences within the
population. ICT greatly enhance this process.
ICT are used to spread techno-nationalist mentalities, which can be read as
a promise to further modernize China, in that sense negating the existence of a
performance dilemma. e Chinese government’s plan to make China a “nation
of innovations” within years (State Council of the People’s Republic of China
) is ﬂanked by the extensive indoctrination through a vast and growing
propaganda apparatus. e frequency of the term “innovation” (chuangxin)
in the headlines of the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), one of the most impor-
tant propaganda organs of the government, increased from in to
in . At the same time, the number of articles that carried the term in the
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 397
full text increased from to .
Translated into the jargon of the World
Bank, the CCP government seeks to improve the “technological” (World Bank.
: ) and “functional” (World Bank : ) literacy of the population,
making them an integral part of the Chinese government’s modernization plan.
e government not only monitors and censors social media, but has itself
become an avid blogger. In line with the central government’s recent eﬀorts
to strengthen the Party’s control over the cultural sector, government depart-
ments and oﬃcials were asked to set up microblogs. As a consequence, the
number of oﬃcial microblogs increased from less than , in January to
more than , in December . e overwhelming majority are hosted
by the commercial providers Sina and Tencent and not, as might be expected,
by the People’s Daily or Xinhua. Most are operated by local government depart-
ments at the county level and below, and nearly half belong to public security
departments and oﬃcials (E-Government Research Center ; People’s Daily
Online Public Opinion Survey Oﬃce ). e regime’s obsession with pub-
lic security, the bad reputation of the security organs and the high visibility of
the police are probably responsible for this preponderance. Some of the better-
known microblogs, such as that of Beijing’s municipal public security depart-
ment, have millions of followers.
Although is too early to say if this recent strategy will succeed in bolstering
the legitimacy of the CCP one-party regime, it vividly illustrates the govern-
ment’s steep learning curve (Noesselt ).
Judged by the classic indicators, both regimes have signiﬁcantly increased their
capacity to repress dissent. In Myanmar, Ne Win’s early attempts to improve
infrastructural and discursive power are mirrored in a decrease in military
spending: Between and , the budgetary share of military expendi-
tures had fallen from % to %. Predictably, the regime remilitarized after
the coup of . Expenditure ﬁgures are not available, but the increase in the
army and paramilitary forces from , in to , in suggests
that the military and public security apparatus now commands a signiﬁcantly
larger share than before (Institute for Strategic Studies ). Similar processes
can be observed in China. In , local governments had allocated merely %
of their budget for maintaining public security, but more than three times as
much (.%) in (National Bureau of Statistics ; National Bureau of
Statistics ). However, this average conceals a large degree of local varia-
tion: while Gansu provincial government spent merely .% of its budget on
public security in , Guangdong province nearly crossed the % thresh-
old (National Bureau of Statistics ). It is important to note that although
4 Own analysis based on the People’s Daily full text database, access limited to subscribers.
China’s repressive capacity has increased, and although repression is routinely
employed, repression is not the chief means of regime maintenance. Here, it
diﬀers from pre-liberalization Myanmar, where the junta relied almost exclu-
sively on repression and was therefore characterized as “one of the most repres-
sive regimes in the world” by Aurel Croissant and David Kühn (Croissant &
Kühn : ).
As was the case with infrastructural and discursive power, the broad uti-
lization of information-, communication- and surveillance technologies for
regime maintenance requires considerable investments – hence the explosion
of public security outlays in provinces and cities such as Guangdong, Beijing,
Shanghai and Tianjin. Once in place, however, they signiﬁcantly raise the cost
of opposing the regime. A comparison of Internet control in the two countries
serves to exemplify this point. e Chinese government’s approach to Internet
control is to improve information ﬂows beneﬁcial for technological innova-
tion, but to restrict access to sensitive information. In contrast, the Burmese
government does not distinguish between “beneﬁcial” and “harmful” infor-
mation, but restricts access to information almost completely. According to the
Open Net Initiative, the number of Internet users in Myanmar had plummeted
from , to , within a very short time (Deibert et al. : ) and
has increased again only since . is was the result of drastic government
measures such as making private Internet access prohibitively expensive, out-
lawing Internet Cafes, restricting Internet use to speciﬁc hours and slowing or
even shutting down the Internet for extended periods of time, as happened in
the fall of (Deibert et al. : ). In other words, the pre-liberalization
Burmese regime countered the unintended use of modern ICT by pulling the
plug and concurrently blocking innovation. In China, popular ICT use is con-
strained only selectively, in order to facilitate economic growth while keeping
dissent in check.
Other measures that deserve the attention of political scientists are the
employment of ICT to predict and prevent “catastrophes” such as mining acci-
dents and natural disasters, but social unrest also falls into this category (State
Council of the People’s Republic of China ; National Development and
Reform Commission ). In a speech on the future of “the management of
society” (shehui guanli) Hu Jintao announced the creation of a database con-
taining a wealth of personal data for each of China’s . billion citizens (Hu
Jintao ). With the help of centralized databases and improved communi-
cation channels between public security organs, the government plans to sys-
tematically enhance the regime’s rapid response capabilities (State Council of
the People’s Republic of China ).
Greg Walton pointed out as early as that the Chinese government was
designing a surveillance network “able to ‘see,’ ‘hear,’ and to ‘think’” (Walton
: ), implying the use of closed circuit (CCTV) cameras, audio surveil-
e Information Dilemma: How ICT Strengthen or Weaken Authoritarian Rule 399
lance and artiﬁcial intelligence. Depending on the advances in face recogni-
tion, the use of CCTV cameras could be extended from regulating traﬃc and
deterring criminal activities to tracking individuals. China now possesses the
largest network of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras in the world, with
more than million cameras being installed in alone (Branigan ).
In , the city of Chongqing installed , such cameras (Chao & Clark
). “Speech signal processing” facilitates intelligent telephone surveillance:
words and phrases can be recognized and assigned to individuals. Artiﬁcial
intelligence is used to identify and store individual communication patterns in
data streams under surveillance (Walton : ).
Most recently, “China Information Technology,” a main provider of sur-
veillance technologies to local governments in China, has been developing an
identity card for migrant workers, who are a social risk group especially in
Guangdong Province. ese cards will contain RFID chips that can commu-
nicate with GPS satellites, which will enable local governments to track the
movement of a locality’s migrant population in real time. As soon as the data
signals an impending demonstration or any other form of public assembly
of a signiﬁcant number of migrants, forces can be deployed to disperse the
As the Chinese government is not alone in propping up authoritarian rule
with modern technology, this is a complex worth further attention. e fact
that such technologies are frequently not developed domestically, but in coop-
eration with multinational enterprises, makes the nexus between technology
and repression even more relevant (for China, see Göbel & Ong ).
5. Conclusion and discussion
e purpose of this paper was to model the impact of ICT on authoritarian rule.
It was posited that autocratic regimes are confronted with “information dilem-
mas” at various points in their history, and that they can choose to allow or
block the spread of ICT. e comparison between Myanmar and China has illus-
trated that the decision to block or allow the spread of ICT might be intimately
connected with the decision whether or not to liberalize a country’s economy
and/or allow the inﬂux of foreign direct investments. e study also showed
that allowing ICT presents risks as well as opportunities. In terms of risks, ICT
might be abused as “liberation technologies” – further research is needed to
establish the inﬂuence of popular ICT use on autocratic regime breakdowns. In
terms of opportunities, governments can employ ICT not only to eavesdrop on
the population, but also to strengthen their capabilities for surveillance, organi-
zation, and persuasion. e illustration of the manner in which the Chinese
government uses ICT to prop up state power suggests that these measures serve
to increase legitimacy-relevant outputs as well as to increase the capability of
regime elites to monitor the performance of its agents, to aggregate and pro-
cess popular demands, and to persuade people to support the regime. China
and Myanmar are extreme cases in the spectrum of methods to deal with the
information dilemma. More research is needed about cases in which ICT was
allowed to proliferate, but nevertheless subsequently collapsed. e model
introduced in this paper would suggest that they were less adept at manag-
ing ICT – not only, and perhaps not primarily, its utilization by regime critics,
but more fundamentally for the purpose of increasing the despotic, infrastruc-
tural and discursive power of their regimes. Studying ICT management in those
regimes that broke down during the Arab Spring – all of which were character-
ized by longevity and fairly high ICT penetration rates – would be a ﬁrst step in
testing the explanatory potential of the model formulated in this paper.
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