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Information Technology and the Future of the Chinese State: How the Internet Shapes State-Society Relations in the Digital Age

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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.
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Why does China Have Internet?
Contagion, contingency and strategy in China’s
ICT management
Christian G¨obel
University of Vienna, Department of East Asian Studies
Christian.Goebel@univie.ac.at
October 16, 2015
Abstract
By the end of 2015, every second Chinese will have access to the In-
ternet. The ability of an increasing number of Chinese people to com-
municate 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 in-
dividuals on the transformation of China’s one-party authoritarian regime
remains poorly understood. This article addresses this issue by examin-
ing 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 appa-
ratus. 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 de-
velopment and was deemed unfit to meet the demands of an increasingly
assertive population.
The research for this contribution was generously funded by the Swedish Science Council
(Vetenskapsrt Projects No. 2011-1495 and 2012-5630)
1
1 Introduction
Few will doubt that the Internet is changing the future of authoritarian regimes,
and China in particular. The question of how this change takes place, and with
what effects, is much more controversial. Are social media rendering dictator-
ships unstable, because they induce and facilitate revolutions such as in the
Arab Spring? Or are they instead contributing to the stability of authoritarian
regimes, because they facilitate the emergence of an Orwellian surveillance- and
propaganda state? Although being diametrically opposed with respect to the
assumed effect of the Internet on the stability of authoritarian regimes, these
theories share a common premise - that of an antagonistic relationship between
those who govern and those who are governed. More specifically, both theories
conceptualize the Internet as a weapon in the struggle between political elites
and opponents for the future of the regime.
While acknowledging that the Internet can indeed have a decisive impact
on the outcome of such a struggle, the present contribution sets out from a
different premise: that Internet-based governance can decisively influence if the
relationship between rulers and ruled becomes antagonistic in the first place.
The Chinese case illustrates this well. Although ranked as one of the most
unfree in the world, the Chinese government has speedily embraced the Internet
to upgrade its governance apparatus. In seeming contrast to its low democracy
score, the United Nations rate China’s “e-participation” offers higher than the
average European country.
What explains this apparent paradox? This article argues that the conflu-
ence 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 con-
tinue, there was no way past the Internet. The second challenge was China’s
brittle governance apparatus at the time, which hindered economic develop-
ment and was deemed unfit to meet the demands of an increasingly assertive
population.
Instead of avoiding the Internet, an option chosen by only very few regimes,
or yielding to the economic pressure while neglecting to simultaneously use the
Internet to “upgrade” the regime, the ruling elites employed the Internet to facil-
itate both economic growth and better governance. In line with previous reform
experience, the improvement of governance in the centre was accompanied with
incentives to improve governance in China’s cities and counties by means of
local policy innovations, resulting in a patchwork of e-government initiatives by
local governments.
2
2 Autocracy, Modernization and the Internet
The Arab spring has rekindled scholarly interest in the forces of political revolu-
tions.1Given the prominent role of social media in the Arab Spring, the debate
quickly centered on the role of the Internet in the survival or demise of authori-
tarian regimes.2The debate is instructive for the parameters of regime survival
after a regime crisis has already formed. However, there is a tendency to sub-
stitute this debate for the much larger question of how the Internet affects the
operation, legitimacy and survival of authoritarian regimes. This would be sen-
sible if crisis was an inherent characteristic of authoritarian regimes, but there
is little evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case. It follows that current
autocracy research risks committing a major fallacy: to restrict the analysis
1There had been much interest in revolutions in the 1980s and 1990s, some major contri-
butions being Charles Tilly (1996). “European Revolutions: 1492-1992 (Making of Europe)”.
In: Jack A Goldstone (1991). Revolution and rebellion in the early modern world. Univ of
California Press, Theda Skocpol (1979). States and social revolutions: A comparative anal-
ysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge University Press, Jack A Goldstone (1980).
“Theories of revolution: The third generation”. In: World Politics 32.03, pp. 425–453. For
an overview over the extensive literature, see Jack A Goldstone (2014). Revolutions: A very
short introduction. Vol. 381. Oxford University Press.
2see for example Daniel Calingaert (2010). “Authoritarianism vs. the Internet”. In: Policy
Review 160.63, pp. 63–75, Babak Rahimi (2003). “Cyberdissent: the internet in revolutionary
Iran”. In: Middle East 7.3, p. 102, Lisa Anderson (2011). “Demystifying the Arab spring”.
In: Foreign Affairs 90.3, pp. 2–7, Carol Huang (2011). “Facebook and Twitter key to Arab
Spring uprisings: report”. In: The National. Vol. 6, Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C Boas
(2010). Open networks, closed regimes: The impact of the Internet on authoritarian rule.
Carnegie Endowment, Philip N Howard et al. (2011). “Opening closed regimes: what was
the role of social media during the Arab Spring?” In: Available at SSRN 2595096 ; Habibul
Haque Khondker (2011). “Role of the new media in the Arab Spring”. In: Globalizations
8.5, pp. 675–679; Gadi Wolfsfeld, Elad Segev, and Tamir Sheafer (2013). “Social media
and the Arab spring politics comes first”. In: The International Journal of Press/Politics
18.2, pp. 115–137; Hamid Dabashi (2012). The Arab Spring: Delayed Defiance and the End
of Postcolonialism. Zed Books Limited; George Joff´e (2011). “The Arab spring in north
Africa: origins and prospects”. In: The Journal of North African Studies 16.4, pp. 507–532;
Nahed Eltantawy and Julie B Wiest (2011). “The Arab spring: Social media in the Egyp-
tian revolution: reconsidering resource mobilization theory”. In: International Journal of
Communication 5, p. 18; Ilhem Allagui and Johanne Kuebler (2011). “The arab spring: the
role of icts introduction”. In: International Journal of Communication 5, p. 8; Gilad Lotan
et al. (2011). “The Arab Spring— the revolutions were tweeted: Information flows during
the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions”. In: International journal of communication 5,
p. 31; Xiao Qiang (2011). “The battle for the Chinese Internet”. In: Journal of Democracy
22.2, pp. 47–61, Dana Ott and Melissa Rosser (2000). “The electronic republic? The role
of the Internet in promoting democracy in Africa”. In: Democratization 7.1, pp. 137–156;
Marcus Alexander (2004). “The Internet and democratization: the development of Russian
Internet policy”. In: population 8.6, p. 4; Garry Rodan (1998). “The Internet and politi-
cal control in Singapore”. In: Political Science Quarterly 113.1, pp. 63–89; Shirin Madon
(2000). “The Internet and socio-economic development: exploring the interaction”. In: In-
formation technology & people 13.2, pp. 85–101; Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C Boas
(2001). “The Internet and state control in authoritarian regimes: China, Cuba and the coun-
terrevolution”. In: First Monday 6.8; Peter Ferdinand (2000). “The Internet, democracy
and democratization”. In: Democratization 7.1, pp. 1–17; Ekaterina Stepanova (2011). “The
role of information communication technologies in the “arab spring””. In: Ponars Eurasia 15,
pp. 1–6; Mridul Chowdhury (2008). “The role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution”.
In: Berkman Center research publication 2008-8.
3
of the Internet’s impact on state-society relations in authoritarian regimes to
times of crisis while claiming that the results are applicable to all authoritarian
regimes. More importantly, the debate misses that the Internet is more than
just a weapon in the fight between authoritarian rulers and the opposition. As
the example of China will show, the Internet has the potential to change the
operation of authoritarian regimes in fundamental ways.
The present section dissects the theoretical fallacy that much research on the
Internet in authoritarian regimes succumbs to: it implicitly or explicitly sub-
scribes to the main premises of those democratization theories that are informed
by modernization theory, which is compelling and supported by much evidence,
but which was formulated at a time when the Internet did not yet exist. The
modernization-democratization theory holds that state-society relations in au-
thoritarian regimes will inevitably become antagonistic, because such regimes
are unfit to aggregate and meet the demands of an increasingly heterogeneous
and wealthy population.3
Although much energy has been devoted to modeling and analyzing how the
Internet affects the resulting struggle for freedom, so far only little energy has
been devoted to examining the impact of the Internet on the very premises on
which this theory rests. The Chinese case illustrates that the Internet vastly
increases the capacity of authoritarian regimes to aggregate and address pop-
ular demands. Furthermore, situating China in the global context reveals that
while China might be a pioneer in how the government employs the Internet to
enhance regime performance, its methods are easily replicable in other (author-
itarian) states.
There are two main theoretical positions on the Internet’s impact on the
persistence of authoritarian regimes. On one end of the spectrum are accounts
which claim that social media function as “liberation technology,” a term coined
by democratization scholar Larry Diamond.4The pessimist position of Evgeny
Morozov is representative for the other end of the spectrum. In his contribu-
tion, Morozov highlights how authoritarian rulers employ ICT to monitor and
manipulate their subjects.5The differences of the two positions notwithstand-
ing, they share a common premise: both set out from the assumption of an
antagonistic relationship between the population and authoritarian rulers. Op-
timists provide credible accounts of individuals using social media to oppose
authoritarian regimes,6and pessimists show how authoritarian rulers use the
3Seymour Martin Lipset (1959). “Some social requisites of democracy: Economic devel-
opment and political legitimacy”. In: American political science review 53.01, pp. 69–105 is
the classic on the subject.
4Larry Diamond (2010). “Liberation technology”. In: Journal of Democracy 21.3, pp. 69–
83.
5Evgeny Morozov (2011). The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the world. Penguin UK.
6see for example Clay Shirky (2011). “The political power of social media”. In: For-
eign affairs 90.1, pp. 28–41, Manuel Castells (2013). Networks of outrage and hope: Social
movements in the Internet age. John Wiley & Sons, Manuel Castells (2007). “Com-
munication, power and counter-power in the network society”. In: International journal of
communication 1.1, p. 29, Deborah Wheeler (2006). “Empowering Publics: Information Tech-
nology and Democratization in the Arab World-Lessons from Internet Cafe’s and Beyond”.
In:
4
Internet to control a population that would oppose the regime if not monitored
or indoctrinated.7
In doing so, both positions explicitly or implicitly subscribes to the tenets of
modernization theory by assuming that in an authoritarian regime, the relation-
ship between rulers and ruled is determined to become antagonistic. Modern-
ization theory, arguably the most influential theory to explain democratization,
has so far been remarkably accurate in its predictions.8It holds that democ-
ratization becomes more likely the richer and more diversified an autocracy is.
It reasons that once peoples’ basic needs such as food, clothing, a home and
personal safety are met, they begin to embrace non-material values. Not having
to struggle for survival, they start to value their personal freedom, the quality
of their living environment, and stress the importance of justice and equality.
As authoritarian rule is not compatible with these norms, modernization theory
predicts that an increasing number of people will strive for democracy.9Nat-
urally, this does not apply to all people in a society - as a general rule, self
fulfillment values are more prominent in people with a high level of education.10
When modernization theory became popular in the social sciences in the
mid–20th century, the Internet did not yet exist. Still, modeling its role in
the modernization process is fairly straightforward if is not comprehended as
a democratizing force in its own right, but an accelerator of the process just
outlined. First of all, the Internet makes it easier for people to learn about the
conduct of their government and to compare it to other governments.11 Second,
grievances and calls for action can quickly and efficiently be communicated to a
large audience.12 Finally, social media can be employed to organize resistance
without having to rely on risky personal meetings.13
Just as most existing research on the Internet’s democratizing effect sub-
scribes to modernization theory, so do the claims that the Internet can stabilize
7for a book-length monograph, see Kalathil and Boas, Open networks, closed regimes:
The impact of the Internet on authoritarian rule. See Espen Geelmuyden Rød and Nils
B Weidmann (2015). “Empowering activists or autocrats? The Internet in authoritarian
regimes”. In: Journal of Peace Research 52.3, pp. 338–351 for recent contribution that
empirically tests both positions and finds more evidence for the pessimists’ position.
8Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and
democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press; Adam Prze-
worski and Fernando Limongi (1997). “Modernization: Theories and facts”. In: World
politics 49.02, pp. 155–183. For a more critical analysis that nevertheless concedes economic
growth to be a “necessary, but not sufficient” component of democratization, see Zehra F
Arat (1988). “Democracy and economic development: Modernization theory revisited”. In:
Comparative Politics, pp. 21–36.
9Lipset, “Some social requisites of democracy: Economic development and political legiti-
macy”.
10Inglehart and Welzel, Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human de-
velopment sequence.
11Wheeler, “Empowering Publics: Information Technology and Democratization in the
Arab World-Lessons from Internet Cafe’s and Beyond”
12Hubertus Buchstein (1997). “Bytes that bite: The Internet and deliberative democracy”.
In: Constellations 4.2, pp. 248–263.
13Rahimi, “Cyberdissent: the internet in revolutionary Iran”, Castells, Networks of outrage
and hope: Social movements in the Internet age, Chowdhury, “The role of the Internet in
Burma’s Saffron Revolution”.
5
authoritarian rule. Most importantly, they subscribe to the same premise that
the relationship between rulers and ruled in an autocracy is bound to turn
antagonistic. The claim that the Internet benefits authoritarian rulers is not
derived by negating that premise, but by arguing that revolution can be de-
ferred or prevented by manipulating the preference structure of the populace.
These theories zoom in on two aspects: targeted censorship as a way to learn
about people’s grievances while preventing them from engaging in collective
action, and changing people’s preferences by means of political propaganda.14
Summarizing the above, most existing theories on the Internet’s impact on au-
thoritarian rule comprehend the Internet as a weapon yielded by two sides in
a fight for the future of a country, and are concerned with which side is more
likely to prevail.15
In order to better understand how the Internet might prevent such antag-
onism from forming, the processes that are believed to inevitably lead rulers
and ruled towards conflict need to be pinpointed. The democratization litera-
ture has identified two main dilemmas authoritarian rulers find very difficult to
resolve. The “performance dilemma”, formulated by Samuel Huntington in his
seminal treatise on the forces behind the “Third Wave” of democratization that
began with the “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal in 1974 and spread across
Southern Europe, Latin America and Asia.16 Huntington, who throughout his
scholarly career argued that a political system needs to adapt to the level of
development and social heterogeneity of a country,17 convincingly shows in his
book that antagonism between rulers and ruled is not an inherent characteristic
of authoritarian regimes, but is forming gradually. In a nutshell, he holds that
people are not averse to authoritarian rule as long as they see their personal
lives improve. However, he also shows that once development stops, or reaches
a certain level, people will begin to resent the truncation of civil and political
liberties.18
Another dilemma was posited by Ronald Wintrobe,19 who focuses his atten-
tion not on the effect of modernization and development of popular attitudes,
but builds on the fact that authoritarian regimes, as Juan Linz has famously
stated, tend to prevent challenges to their rule by demobilizing society and
breeding political apathy. According to Wintrobe, however, authoritarian rulers
need to know how much support they have in the population, and whom they
need to co-opt by distributing economic rents.20 However, people are hesitant
14Rød and Weidmann, “Empowering activists or autocrats? The Internet in authoritarian
regimes”.
15Xiao Qiang even uses the word “battle” in this context (Qiang, “The battle for the Chinese
Internet”).
16Samuel P Huntington (1993). The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth
century. Vol. 4. University of Oklahoma press.
17Samuel P Huntington (2006). Political order in changing societies. Yale University Press.
18Huntington, The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century
19Ronald Wintrobe et al. (1998). The political economy of dictatorship. Vol. 6. Cambridge
Univ Press.
20see also Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith (2005). The logic of political
survival. MIT press.
6
to reveal their grievances for fear of repression. Being uninformed of people’s
grievances and demands, Wintrobe argues, leads authoritarian rulers to assume
the worst - that people are scheming to overthrow or assassinate them. As a
consequence, they increase repression, which eventually makes these concerns a
self-fulfilling prophesy.21
The purpose of this article is not to deny the necessity of studying the Inter-
net’s impact on the outcomes of struggles between rulers and regime opponents,
but to argue that more scholarly attention must be devoted to the Internet’s
impact on reducing the likelihood of such struggles to appear in the first place.
It sets out from the notion that the antagonism between rulers and ruled does
not exist by default, and claims that the Internet can aid rulers in preventing
such antagonism from forming. The case of China, where the leadership had
been demonstrably aware of the challenges posed by speedy modernization to
one-Party rule and reacted accordingly, illustrates that the Internet can serve to
enhance regime performance and public participation without, however, causing
regime-threatening antagonism to increase.
Before examining the factors responsible for these developments, the next
section will illustrate how an increasing number of localities in China uses the
Internet to enhance regime performance and co-opt potential opponents.
3 Online Participation in an Unfree Country
China is a suitable case to illustrate how the Internet has been employed to
overcome the dilemmas discussed above. A brief comparison of two indicators
supports this claim: according to all available democracy measures, China is
one of the most unfree countries in the world.22 In contrast, China’s score in
the United Nation’s E-Participation Index (0.6471) is higher than the Euro-
pean average (0.5454). The E-Participation Index measures the opportunity to
participate online in three dimensions: access to public information, signaling
policy preferences, and designing public policies. China is strong in the first two
dimensions.23
3.1 E-Services and E-Monitoring
Since the early 2000s, China’s annual budget for e-government has increased 40
percent per year. In 2011 alone, the government invested roughly 951 trillion
yuan (114 trillion Euros) in the computerization of government.24 As a result of
21Wintrobe, The political economy of dictatorship.
22Freedom House (2013). “Freedom in the World 2013”. In: Democratic breakthroughs
in the balance, IV Polity (2012). “Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and
Transitions, 1800-2012”. In: On-line (http://www. systemicpeace. org/polity/polity4. htm).
23United Nations. Department of Economic (2014). United Nations E-government Survey
2014. Vol. 2. United Nations Publications.
24Hu Hongmei (2012). “Zhongguo Dianzi Zhengwu Shi Nian Huigu Yu Zhanwang (China’s
e-government in the last 10 years: review and outlook)”. In: ed. by Ping Du Yi Hong. Beijing:
Shehui kexue chubanshe, pp. 1–15.
7
these investments, Chinese governments at all levels have increased their online
visibility: along with the rapid increase of the Internet access rate from 8.5
percent of the population in 2005 to likely more than 50 percent at the end of
201525 came an equally rapid increase in webpages registered under the Chinese
government’s “gov.cn” domain. Between 2005 and mid–2012, the number of
government webpages increased more than five-fold from 11.052 to 55207, and
the number of official micro-blogs exploded from less than 1,000 in January
2011 to 258,737 in December 2013. Most are operated by local government
departments at the county level and below, and nearly half belong to public
security departments and -officials.26
Besides establishing an online presence for party and government commis-
sions and ministries at all administrative levels and providing information such
as laws, regulations, policies, fiscal data, administrative structures, local in-
dustry, development plans and the biographical data of leading officials, local
governments experiment with web-based innovations in providing public ser-
vices and “managing society”.27 On the local level, governments use the Inter-
net in three main forms to improve governance: e-services, e-monitoring, and
e-participation.
E-services display certain overlaps with the digitalization of bureaucratic
processes discussed above, the main difference being that the latter refers to
the digitalization of processes within the government, whereas e-services entails
service-related communication between government agencies and citizens. E-
services are mainly found localities that have the financial resources necessary
to set up electronic gateways through which citizens can conduct transactions
with government agencies.28 Examples in case include paying taxes, applying
for a license, and submitting a tender for a government contract. These solutions
are costly because they need to be integrated with other databases and require
protection against data theft. They are employed mainly in places where three
conditions are met: governments must be able to afford setting up e-services,
there must be enough potential users to warrant the investment, and there must
be an actual demand. This mainly applies to wealthy cities, where government
revenue is high, a seizable part of the population has Internet access, and people
are busy enough that the time saving of not having to deal with the government
in person is appreciated. The main target group for e-services are not ordinary
25Zhongguo Hulianwanglu Fazhan Zhuangkuang Tongji Baogao (Statistical report on
China’s Internet development) (1998-2013). Beijing: China Internet Network Information
Center.
262012 Nian Xinlang Zhengwu Weibo Baogao (2012 Report on Sina Government Mi-
croblogs) (2012). Beijing: People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Survey Office; E-Government
Research Center (2014). 2013 Nian Zhongguo Zhengwu Weiboke Pinggu Baogao (Evaluation
report on government microblogs in China 2013). Beijing: Chinese Academy of Governance.
27Zhonggong Bangongting, Guowuyuan Guanyu Yinfa ’2006-2020 Nian Xinxihua Fazhan
Cel¨ue’ De Tongzhi (Notification by the General office of the Chinese Communist Party and
the General Office of the State Council regarding the distribution of the ’Development Strategy
for China’s Informatization between 2006 and 2020) (2006). State Council.
28Christian G¨obel and Xuelian Chen (2014). “Accountable Autocrats? E-Government,
Empowerment and Control in China”. In: Vienna, University of (ed.) Working Paper
2014.12.
8
citizens, but corporate users, and e-services are seen as benefiting economic
growth.29 With tax matters, business licenses and other interactions with the
government conducted virtually, personal contacts between entrepreneurs and
governments can be reduced to a necessary minimum. In addition, electronic
transactions make corruption harder.
As for e-monitoring, the Bureau of Supervision and other internal account-
ability organizations now operate platforms that enable them to monitor the
transactions between service providers and citizens in real time.30 The software
recognizes when a new transaction is being conducted, and measures the time
needed to complete it. Usually, transactions have to be completed within a
pre-specified number of days. In practice, this works as follows: each transac-
tion is marked with a traffic light color - when it begins, green, yellow when
the deadline is near, and red after it passed. Should a deadline pass before the
transaction is completed, the disciplinary authorities will contact the service
providers to enquire why the transaction has not yet been completed. Further
delays can result in a report to government leaders and eventually to the dis-
missal of the head of the service unit.31 Very often, e-monitoring complements
e-services. Together, they are designed to render government services more ef-
ficient, with the ultimate aim of cutting costs and at the same time enhancing
customer satisfaction.32
3.2 E-Participation
The third form Chinese authorities employ the Internet to enhance performance
and increase satisfaction is e-participation. China’s relatively high score in the
E-Participation Index is justified by the fact that citizens can now file online
complaints against politicians and service providers in many localities. Often,
several complaint platforms coexist. First, the Bureaus of Letters and Visits,
China’s traditional agency for filing complaints against government misconduct,
are establishing an online presence everywhere in China.33 Second, disciplinary
organizations like the local branches of the Disciplinary Commission, the Bu-
reau of Supervision and the Mayor’s Office are also setting up online complaint
portals.34 In order to ensure citizens that their complaints are being acted on,
many of these agencies display both the anonymized complaint and the govern-
29obel and Chen, “Accountable Autocrats? E-Government, Empowerment and Control
in China”.
30Jesper Schlæger (2013a). E-government in China: Technology, Power and Local Gov-
ernment Reform. Vol. 34. Routledge; Jesper Schlæger (2013b). “E-Monitoring in the Public
Administration in China: An Exploratory Study”. In: Available at SSRN 2259356.
31obel and Chen, “Accountable Autocrats? E-Government, Empowerment and Control
in China”.
32Jiang Wu and Zhigeng Li, eds. (2011). Dianzi Zhengwu Yu Fuwuxing Zhengfu Jianshe
(E-government and the establishment of a service-oriented government). Beijing: Guijia
Xingzhengxueyuan Chubanshe.
33Interview with leading official of the National Bureau of Letters and Complaints, Beijing,
July 2014.
34obel and Chen, “Accountable Autocrats? E-Government, Empowerment and Control
in China”.
9
ment’s reply online. Such platforms are not isolated phenomena: as Figure 1
illustrates, nearly two thirds of all Chinese cities have at least one website where
complaints and replies are displayed publicly.
Figure 1: Number of online complaint portals and geographical distribution,
2015
This distinguishes them from the online presence of the Bureau of Letters
and Complaints, where visitors can only access their own file. Hence, visitors
to these websites can learn how certain complaints have been acted on in the
past,35 and if grievance has indeed been solved, are encouraged to complain
themselves.
A digitalized bureaucracy, e-services and e-monitoring mainly serve to en-
hance performance, which is important in its own right, because it lends credibil-
ity to the government’s promise that things will continue to improve. Arguably,
opposition to the government is more likely when development stagnates than
when the lives of more and more people improve. This is especially true for
those people who might pose a real danger to the regime, i.e. those who are
well-informed and capable and willing to engage in political action.36
E-participation not only helps to aggregate the grievances and preferences
of people belonging to this group of citizens, but provide them with an opportu-
nity to realize their ambition to participate. Perhaps e-participation holds the
greatest promise for authoritarian rulers who wish to co-opt potential regime
opponents. E-participation promises mutual gains and will not function if those
who participate oppose the regime. It requires a modicum of trust by those
35Christian G¨obel (2015). “Co-producing Authoritarian Resilience: Online participation
and regime responsiveness in China”. In: Vienna University Working Paper 2015.01.
36Lianjiang Li and Kevin J O’brien (2008). “Protest leadership in rural China”. In: The
China Quarterly 193, pp. 1–23.
10
who participate, and the government’s willingness to respond to complaints.
Both sides gain from the relationship established by e-participation, albeit in a
different way.
The authorities who operate the platform receive detailed information on
the performance of the (local) state, which enables them to identify bottlenecks
in service provision. Descriptive statistics of the most frequent words in one
platform that holds more than half a million complaints provide a first indication
of the range of topics addressed in such portals. The author has downloaded
all complaints and conducted a simple count of all words in all complaints. The
size of a word in the word cloud indicates its frequency (Figure 2).37
Figure 2: 600 most frequent terms in an online complaint portal (500.018
complaints)
Knowing people’s grievances is an important precondition for designing mea-
37for a more detailed analysis, see G¨obel, “Co-producing Authoritarian Resilience: Online
participation and regime responsiveness in China”.
11
sures to improve government performance. Those in the population who are
affected by a particular problem also benefit by its resolution. These benefits
can apply to a seizable share of the population if grievances are related to is-
sues such as social welfare, but they can also be confined to a small group of
people, for example when the government addresses complaints about nighttime
construction in a certain neighborhood. They can impact social groups such as
workers or peasants, or the citizenry at large.38
E-participation has another important effect, one that only applies to those
who file a complaint. As noted above, in many places, the official reply is
published along with the original complaint. In localities where this is not the
case, complainants will also frequently receive a reply to their submission. This
means that where a reply is given, the complainant is in direct communication
with the government, and will receive an explanation of how the government
proposes to address a grievance, and why. In this way, e-participation serves as
an instrument of accountability where government officials explain themselves
to individual citizens.
In this context, the concept of political efficacy is of some relevance. Effi-
cacy is defined as the ability to produce a desired result, and a scholars dis-
tinguish between internal and external efficacy. Internal efficacy refers to the
belief that one is capable of producing actions that have a political impact.
In contrast, external efficacy refers to the belief that the government will be
responsive to one’s inputs.39 It is reasonable to assume that there is an in-
herent tension between these two aspects of efficacy. If an individual believes
that she is capable of participating in politics, but at the same time perceives
the government as unresponsive, then that person is likely to become alienated
from the regime. The ability to co-opt people with a high level of internal effi-
cacy, i.e. those who are most likely to oppose the ruling elites if they become
alienated, is the single most important game changing aspect of e-participation.
In simple terms, e-participation can turn potential opponents into supporters
of the regime. Contrariwise, if the grievances of those who participate online
are ignored, e-participation can turn potential supporters into opponents of the
regime. Hence, it would be unwise to heavily censor or be unresponsive to such
submissions.
Having established that the Chinese government employs the Internet not
only to enhance the regime’s economic performance, but also to increase respon-
siveness to popular demands and co-opt citizens with high internal efficacy, the
analysis now turns to the factors that benefited these developments. In doing
so, it will not only examine domestic, but also international factors.
38obel, “Co-producing Authoritarian Resilience: Online participation and regime respon-
siveness in China”.
39Stephen C Craig and Michael A Maggiotto (1982). “Measuring political efficacy”. In:
Political Methodology, pp. 85–109.
12
4 The Irresistible Pressure to Go Online
While existing scholarship of the spread of the Internet in China mainly exam-
ine domestic factors, this contribution argues that a convincing explanation of
the Chinese government’s readiness to adopt the Internet must also account for
global factors. As the following section will illustrate, the quick proliferation of
the Internet in China is by no means unique, but is in line with a global trend.
This suggests that non-domestic forces have an important effect on the Internet
policy of China and, indeed, most other countries. It will become clear that
countries have no choice but to adopt the Internet, and China’s domestic Inter-
net policy must be understood as reaction to this compelling external pressure.
Hence, China’s Internet policy must be understood not as the embodiment of
a vision of far-sighted leaders, but as an answer to a challenge produced by the
forces of globalization. Before accounting for the Chinese government’s answer
to this challenge, the challenge itself requires some explanation. The expla-
nation starts with a seemingly innocuous question: if the Internet is indeed
detrimental to authoritarian rule, why do autocrats adopt it nevertheless?
4.1 Economic Development and the Internet
The most plausible answer is economic necessity: the Internet has become em-
bedded so deeply into the world economy that the refusal to participate would
be tantamount to isolating oneself from international trade, with potentially
disastrous consequences for that country’s economic development.40 However,
it will be shown that contingency also matters: the case of China illustrates
that the confluence of external pressure and internal demand created a window
of opportunity. Arguably, the spread of the Internet just at a time when the
necessity arose to upgrade China’s telecommunication infrastructure promised
more benefits than risks. China’s leaders made the most out of this opportunity,
none the least because they had drawn important lessons from the collapse of
the Soviet Union. Figure 3 confirms that Internet access and economic devel-
opment go hand in hand, and that China’s Internet penetration rate is by no
means exceptional.
Figure 3 visualizes the relationship between per capita GDP and the percent-
age of people in a population who have access to the Internet and shows that the
two factors correlate highly: isolating oneself from the Internet comes at the cost
of a low level of economic development. Without exception, economic strength
increases with Internet penetration. While this finding seems trivial - indeed,
the apparent triviality might be a reason for the lack of scholarly engagement
with the question of why regimes decide to adopt the Internet - it really is not.
First, it invites the question of the direction of causality, i.e. if the Internet
facilitates growth, if growth facilitates the spread of the Internet, or if the rela-
tionship is co-dependent. Second, a closer look at the scatterplot reveals that
40Menzie D Chinn and Robert W Fairlie (2006). “The determinants of the global digital
divide: a cross-country analysis of computer and internet penetration”. In: Oxford Economic
Papers.
13
Figure 3: Internet Penetration Rate and GDP/Capita, 2013
most countries at the high end of the spectrum are the industrialized democra-
cies of Europe and North America, closely followed by the so-called third wave
democracies, countries that became democratic after 1970. The association be-
tween regime type and Internet penetration (and GDP) vanishes for countries
with Internet penetration rates between 30 and 70 percent, but reappears at
the lower end of the spectrum. Here, most countries combine authoritarianism,
low development and low Internet penetration.
4.2 Contagion and Contingency
Apparently, the relationship between Internet penetration and economic growth
is more complex than the scatterplot suggests. One plausible explanation for
the fact that we find early developers in the top end of the spectrum, catch-up
developers in the middle and least developed countries at the low end is that
contingency matters. The literature on technological innovation is instructive
here: users of new technologies are classified into lead users, early adopters and
routine users.41 Lead users are willing to pay a high price for a new product,
early adopters follow suit as the market grows and the product becomes more
affordable and technically mature. Once a product is standardized, its use
becomes routine - the market now includes large segments of the population.
In the case of the Internet, adoption at this stage is no longer a choice, but a
necessity - the more the number of countries and, indeed, citizens who use the
41Geoffrey Moore (2002). Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling products to main-
stream customers.
14
Internet increases, the more compelling it becomes to follow the trend.42
For the countries in Figure 3, the observations above translate into the fol-
lowing logic: when the Internet became available for commercial use in 1995,
the industrial democracies were the natural early adopters. First, they had
the necessary infrastructure to facilitate popular access to the Internet. With
broadband and wireless access not yet available or restricted to institutional or
commercial users, private citizens had to have a telephone connection in order
to be able to access the Internet. Most citizens in the industrialized European
and North American democracies had a telephone, but the same was not nec-
essarily true for those countries classified by the World Bank as lower middle
income and below. Second, these economies were advanced enough to realize
the commercial potential of the Internet, which also facilitated its adoption by
private users. Not only did the promise of new markets create political pres-
sure to improve the communication infrastructure and make it affordable, but
also did new and exciting products convince people to pay for Internet access.43
Third, the general level of education was high enough that a popular demand
for these advanced technologies could develop.44
The lead users and early adopters chose to integrate the Internet into their
economies and societies and thereby created a momentum that made its adop-
tion more and more pressing for the catch-up developers. Internet-based tech-
nologies slowly became the standard of communication in and between devel-
oped countries, and developing countries had to follow suit to avoid being left
behind.45 However, for many countries in the low middle income range, adopt-
ing the Internet was not only a necessity, but also presented great opportunities.
China is a good example of a country where the pressure to enhance Internet ac-
cess coincided with an increasing affordability of these technologies and a stage
of development where the adoption of the Internet promised both economic and
political returns.
4.3 Technological Leap-Frogging
In 1978, China was still an agrarian country in the sense that farming was the
main occupation for more than 80 percent of the population. By the mid 2000s,
this percentage had dropped below the 50-percent mark. At the same time, the
contribution of the service sector to China’s GDP nearly doubled from 24 to
40 percent.46 In what in hindsight seems like a fortuitous coincidence, China’s
42Chinn and Fairlie, “The determinants of the global digital divide: a cross-country analysis
of computer and internet penetration”; Madon, “The Internet and socio-economic develop-
ment: exploring the interaction”.
43Behrang Rezabakhsh et al. (2006). “Consumer power: a comparison of the old economy
and the Internet economy”. In: Journal of Consumer Policy 29.1, pp. 3–36.
44Thompson SH Teo, Vivien KG Lim, and Raye YC Lai (1999). “Intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation in Internet usage”. In: Omega 27.1, pp. 25–37, Madon, “The Internet and socio-
economic development: exploring the interaction”.
45Caroline J Tolbert and Karen Mossberger (2006). “New inequality frontier: Broadband
Internet access”. In: Economic policy institute, EPI working paper 275.
46NBoSo China (2012). “China statistical yearbook”. In: National Bureau of Statistics.
15
economy and society became ready for the Internet just when the technologies
needed to access the Internet, above all computers and wide bandwidth data
transmission, were becoming affordable for private users.47 On the one hand,
this means that investments in the Internet infrastructure promised windfall
profits for telecommunication companies and other enterprises in the ICT sec-
tor.48 On the other hand, this enabled the government to improve China’s
communication infrastructure right at the time when the growing industry and
service sectors needed it.
The confluence of these two developments, the demand for an improved
communication infrastructure and the availability of relatively cheap and fast
Internet, allowed China to stop extending the network of telephone lines and
instead upgrade to fibre broadband cables right away. “Leap-frogging”49 over
an old technology enabled China to catch up to the developed countries more
quickly. For China, whose development strategy chiefly relied on foreign direct
investments and the export of manufactured goods, not adopting the Internet
was not an option. Similar to the development of the telecommunication market
earlier,50 economic necessity dictated the need to embrace the new technology.
Political considerations played a role only in so far they concerned economic
issues - arguably, the implications of improved and accelerated communication
flows for China’s political stability became a concern of the political elites only
after these technologies had been adopted.
It is very likely that the situation is similar for the other countries in that
income bracket, and that the developments of the last decade will continue into
the future. If this is the case, then the Internet penetration rate of the late de-
velopers will gradually catch up with that of the early innovators, provided their
economy continues to grow. At that time, the differences in Internet penetration
between democracies and autocracies will have become moot. In other words,
the fact that democracies seem to be more Internet friendly then autocracies is
not rooted in the political, but the economic differences between the two regime
types, which in turn can be explained by historical development trajectories.
To put it more succinctly: nothing suggests that autocracies, important excep-
tions notwithstanding, are adverse to embracing the Internet, and China is no
47On the impact of broadband on economic development, see Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang
(2010). “Broadband infrastructure investment in stimulus packages: Relevance for developing
countries”. In: info 12.2, pp. 41–56; Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang, Carlo M Rossotto, and Kaoru
Kimura (2009). “Economic impacts of broadband”. In: Information and Communications
for Development 2009: Extending Reach and Increasing Impact, pp. 35–50; Tolbert and
Mossberger, “New inequality frontier: Broadband Internet access”.
48Rezabakhsh et al., “Consumer power: a comparison of the old economy and the Internet
economy”.
49Elise S Brezis, Paul R Krugman, and Daniel Tsiddon (1993). “Leapfrogging in interna-
tional competition: A theory of cycles in national technological leadership”. In: The American
economic review, pp. 1211–1219.
50Eric Harwit (2008). China’s telecommunications revolution. OUP Oxford; Eric Harwit
(2004). “Spreading telecommunications to developing areas in China: Telephones, the Internet
and the digital divide”. In: The China Quarterly 180, pp. 1010–1030; Andrew P Hardy
(1980). “The role of the telephone in economic development”. In: Telecommunications policy
4.4, pp. 278–286.
16
exception.
5 China’s Leaders Have Read Huntington
Although journalists and China scholars frequently emphasize how quickly the
Internet has spread in China, there is nothing remarkable about China’s Internet
penetration rate. In terms of the percentage of the population that has access to
the Internet, China is very similar to the other countries in its income bracket,
no matter if these countries are democratic or not. The fact that GDP per capita
and Internet penetration correlate so highly for nearly all countries in the world
suggests that China follows a general trend. Following this trend is less the
result of the foresight of China’s leaders, but of pure economic necessity. What
is particular about the Chinese experience is how deeply Chinese leaders have
embedded the Internet into their governance structures. For a country that, for
good reasons, scores very low on all democracy indices, it is astonishing that so
many localities are setting up websites that allow people to evaluate the quality
of public service provision and to criticize local bureaucrats and politicians.
Even more astounding is the fact that many of these complaints, along with the
official replies, are made publicly available. Why do local governments use the
Internet to improve their accountability even without being explicitly ordered
by the central government to do so?
This contribution argues that a fortuitous confluence of China’s level of
development, the structure of its political system, and political learning are re-
sponsible for the pro-active adoption of the Internet by local governments. The
argument goes as follows: as China became more industrialized, urbanized, het-
erogeneous, and as incomes started to rise, it became increasingly difficult for
leaders in the central government to design policies that met the demands of
an increasingly heterogeneous society. Invoking scenarios reminiscent of those
described by modernization theorists, central government expressed their fear
that the CCP became increasingly unable to govern China. Instead of ruling by
imposing uniform development targets devolved the responsibility for maintain-
ing social stability to local leaders. By encouraging people to protest against
local government misconduct and punishing local officials for the occurrence
of protests, they provided incentives for local officials to prevent people from
taking to the streets. Since the repression of “legitimate” protests was also sanc-
tioned, local leaders had little choice but to become more responsive to popular
demands. Once more, the Internet provided an opportunity to aggregate and
process popular grievances, demands and opinions speedily.
5.1 The Challenge of Modernization
In order to better understand why and how local governments are integrating the
Internet into their governance structures, the changing parameters of central-
local relations in China must be taken into consideration. More specifically,
the necessity to redesign the relationship between the central government and
17
local leaders is another factor that coincided with the global spread of the In-
ternet. Once again, the key issue are the pressures emerging from China’s level
of development, and the potential of Internet-based technologies to ease these
pressures. In the previous section, it was outlined how Chinese leaders, just like
the politicians in most other countries at a similar stage of development, were
forced to improve the basic communication infrastructure to meet the demands
of speedy industrialization and social modernization. However, modernization
exerted pressures not only on the existing communication infrastructure, but
also on the way China was governed.
When China was still underdeveloped, many economic and social challenge
could be, and indeed had to be solved, by means of centralized policy making.
With the exception of those coastal provinces that developed ahead of the rest
of China, a basic public infrastructure had to be created. This included the
construction or repair of schools, hospitals, government buildings and roads, the
implementation of the government’s birth control regime and the enforcement
of tax regulations.51
With most localities facing similar challenges, the central government’s strat-
egy of setting unified development targets and tying the career of local politicians
to the fulfillment of these targets was viable. This was especially true where the
skills and knowledge needed to devise more context-sensitive solutions were not
(yet) available. However, even at a relatively low stage of development did the
strategy of setting mandatory achievement targets run into problems.52 Given
the fact that most of the funds for this modernization were not provided by the
central government, but had to be raised by the local governments themselves,
and that some localities developed faster than others, China became increas-
ingly heterogeneous.53 Income differences between, but also within localities
increased, an unprecedented number of people became urban citizens, and a
middle-class developed. This situation made it increasingly difficult to devise
and implement one-size-fits-all policies.54
In fact, China developed just as modernization theory would predict: the
central government was increasingly unable to cater to all groups in an increas-
ingly heterogeneous society, and feared that vital groups in society might cease
to support the one-party regime. This concern had become acute when two
events occurred in quick succession: the anti-regime protests on Tian’anmen
Square in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union briefly thereafter. Sources
confirm that all administrations have taken this event very seriously and stud-
ied it closely.55 Zeng Qinghong,who had served as the head of the powerful
51Christian G¨obel (2011). “The politics of rural reform in China: State policy and village
predicament in the early 2000s”. In: The China Quarterly 206, pp. 426–461.
52Thomas P Bernstein and Xiaobo L¨u (2003). Taxation without representation in contem-
porary rural China. Vol. 37. Cambridge University Press.
53Carl Riskin, Renwei Zhao, and Shi Li (2001). China’s retreat from equality: Income
distribution and economic transition. ME Sharpe.
54Gunter Schubert and Thomas Heberer (2015). “Continuity and Change in China’s” Local
State Developmentalism””. In: Issues and Studies 51.2, p. 1.
55David L Shambaugh (2008). China’s communist party: atrophy and adaptation. Univ of
California Press.
18
organization department in the Jiang Zemin administration and became first
secretary of the Central Secretariat for the Communist Party of China under
CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, was very outspoken in his concern that the
CCP might meet the same fate. At the Fourth Plenum of the Sixteenth Party
Congress in September 2004, the CCP’s Central Committee passed the “Deci-
sion on Enhancing the Party’s Ability to Govern”.56 Zeng justified the Decision
by attributing the “overnight collapse” of “the Soviet Union, the “number one
socialist country [. . . ] with an 88-year history and 15 million [Communist Party]
members”, to the fact that “people were dissatisfied with what the officials ac-
complished while in charge, and they became seriously isolated from the masses
of the people”. In effect, Zeng drew on modernization theory when he warned
that China faced similar dangers with her entry into “the critical period of
the per-capita gross domestic product leaping from USD 1,000 toward USD
3,000.”57
5.2 The Policy Innovation Imperative
The central governments solution for this quandary was to change the way
China was governed. Having identified the low quality of the local cadre force
as the main predicament hindering China’s future development, in particular
the cadres’ “low level of ideological and theoretical knowledge, weak ability
to govern according to law, weak capacity to solve complex contradictions”,58
measures were first taken to rejuvenate the cadre force, raise its level of educa-
tion, make the selection process more meritocratic, and require public officials
to attend various training courses.59 In contrast to the first measures, which
were mainly designed to strengthen the governance skills of local cadres, the
campaigns that followed the Decision gradually imposed on local leaders a “pol-
icy innovation imperative”.60 In contrast to the 1980s, where following the
central government’s orders often sufficed for promotion to a higher position,
local leaders were now expected to identify, even anticipate, economic and social
challenges and devise ways to solve them. Designing and implementing viable
policy innovations became a precondition of being evaluated as “excellent” in
56Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (2004). Zhonggong Zhongyang
Guanyu Jiaqiang Dang de Zhizheng Nengli Jianshe de Jueding (Decision by the Central Com-
mittee of the Chinese Communist Party on Strengthening the Party’s Governing Capacity).
url:http://www.china.com.cn/chinese/2004/Sep/668376.htm.
57Qinghong Zeng (2004). Jiaqiang Dang de Zhizheng Nengli Jianshe de Ganglingxing
Wenxian (Programmatic Article on Strengthening the Party’s Governing Capacity).url:
http://news.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/2004-10/08/content_2061716.htm.
58Zeng, Jiaqiang Dang de Zhizheng Nengli Jianshe de Ganglingxing Wenxian (Program-
matic Article on Strengthening the Party’s Governing Capacity).
59Gregory T Chin (2011). “Innovation and Preservation: Remaking China’s National Lead-
ership Training System”. In: The China Quarterly 205, pp. 18–39; Frank N Pieke (2009). The
good communist: elite training and state building in today’s China. Cambridge University
Press.
60Christian G¨obel and Thomas Heberer (forthcoming). “The Policy Innovation Imperative:
Changing Techniques for Governing China’s Local Governors”. In: ed. by Vivienne Shue and
Patricia Thornton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (submitted).
19
the annual assessment, which in turn was an important stepping stone for being
promoted.
On the one hand, the central government rewarded policy innovations by
local officials. On the other hand, however, it implemented measures that in-
creased the pressure on local governments to become more responsive to the
demands and grievances of the population. In particular, evidence suggests
that the central government has become more discerning with regards to popu-
lar protests. While it continues to harshly repress social unrest that challenges
the power monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party or the territorial unity
of the Chinese state, it has become more lenient towards protests against low
government performance, the violation of individual rights (especially regarding
labor issues), and power abuse by local officials.61 As violence against those
protests the central government considers legitimate is discouraged, and the
risk that crackdowns on protests are documented and shared via social media
is high, officials are pressed to prevent social unrest by being more responsive
to people’s grievances.62
Once more, political pressure is not the only reason for local leaders to em-
ploy the Internet for aggregating and addressing popular grievances. It should
be recalled that Chinese officials do not represent a unified group, but are situ-
ated at different positions in China’s “fragmented” polity.63 Those who moni-
tor policy implementation are usually not those who are bearing the blame for
shortcomings and who are responsible for improving the situation.64 In fact, e-
participation strengthens the hands of leading politicians and those responsible
for operating the petitioning websites, but comes at the detriment of those who
are responsible for providing public services. It is therefore not surprising that
e-participation websites now enjoy great popularity, as evidenced above. On
a more abstract level, e-participation benefits leading officials and government
units responsible for discipline and supervision while raising the bar for service
providers and bureaucrats.
Besides introducing the Internet’s potential for reshaping governance, this
section has also shown that China’s e-government strategy is not a singular
phenomenon, but must be understood in relation to the changing incentives
that have driven political reform in China in the past two decades. Although
the Chinese party-state’s ongoing push for digitalizing state-society interactions
harbors great potential for transforming the nature of the Chinese state, it does
not presents a paradigm change with respect to how China is governed.65
61H Christoph Steinhardt (2015a). “From blind spot to media spotlight: Propaganda policy,
media activism and the emergence of protest events in the Chinese public sphere”. In: Asian
Studies Review 39.1, pp. 119–137; H Christoph Steinhardt (2015b). “State Behavior and the
Intensification of Intellectual Criticism in China The Social Stability Debate”. In: Modern
China, p. 0097700415581158.
62Christian G¨obel and Lynette H Ong (2012). “Social unrest in China”. In: Long Briefing,
Europe China Research and Academic Network (ECRAN).
63Andrew Mertha (2009). ““Fragmented authoritarianism 2.0”: political pluralization in
the Chinese policy process”. In: The China Quarterly 200, pp. 995–1012.
64obel and Chen, “Accountable Autocrats? E-Government, Empowerment and Control
in China”.
65Barbara Schulte makes a similar point when she shows that the government’s strategy
20
6 China’s Multiple Futures
This article started out with the seemingly innocuous question of why author-
itarian regimes adopt the Internet if the Internet is indeed as dangerous for
social stability as some accounts suggest. The analysis of China, where leaders
embraced the Internet as eagerly as they had embraced other information and
communication technologies before, presented some solutions to this puzzle.
First, the analysis of the Chinese case has highlighted the role of contagion
and contingency: the adoption of the Internet by the highly developed democ-
racies set in motion a process that made it increasingly difficult for developing
notions to resist the Internet. In other words, authoritarian regimes really had
no choice but to embrace the Internet or else pay the exorbitant price of a
perennial least developed country status. On the other hand, the spread of
increasingly affordable ICT presented great opportunities especially for devel-
oping countries where the existing, analog communication infrastructure had
become a bottleneck for further development.
The political risks are not as great as often imagined: the Internet does
not heighten the danger of a rebellion, but merely accelerates its formation. Ar-
guably, it offers more opportunities for autocrats than for opposition groups. As
the Chinese case shows, authoritarian leaders can learn from the demise of other
autocracies, and the Internet allows them to co-opt potential regime opponents
into the process of making government more efficient. In their combination,
enhanced performance legitimation and the creation of a democracy surrogate
serve to alleviate social challenges to the regime.
The Chinese experience makes it plausible that some of the paradigms of
modernization theory no longer hold. This, however, should not be interpreted
to mean that the Internet has made authoritarian regimes invincible. Instead, e-
government presents them with new challenges that deserve to be studied closely,
for example the impact of the “digital divide” on political representation on the
Internet66 and government responsiveness inviting so many demands that the
system cannot process them anymore. The representation of minority rights
and the explosive mix of improving governance without guaranteeing the rule of
law are other potential breaking points that deserve to be studied more closely.
A final lesson concerns two potential misconceptions in the mainstream de-
mocratization scholarship. The first follows from the plausible premise that
citizen compare their political system to that of other countries. With politics
in developed democracies being increasingly perceived as technocratic and pow-
erless against the economic forces that effortlessly cross national borders and
wreak havoc on people’s lives, “Western democracy” might be losing its attrac-
tiveness. There is a real danger that people, no matter what kind of political
to use ICT for “modernising” rural education is embedded in a system of beliefs that dates
back more than a century Barbara Schulte (2015). “(Dis) Empowering technologies: ICT for
education (ICT4E) in China, past and present”. In: Chinese Journal of Communication 8.1,
pp. 59–77.
66Marina Svensson (2014). “Voice, power and connectivity in China’s microblogosphere:
Digital divides on SinaWeibo”. In: China Information 28.2, pp. 168–188.
21
regime they are subjected to, will fail to appreciate the opportunities that real
democracy offers, and join the ranks of those who feel powerless to alter the
courses of their lives.
A second misconception concerns the future of authoritarian regimes, or
rather the temptation of unwittingly assuming that the state is tied to the future
of the regime. With respect to the Chinese case, this means that the institutional
innovations described here will likely survive the regime that initiated it. In
other words, when we try to imagine the future of China, we should not get
stuck with the question of whether the CCP will or will not survive. More
important is what it will leave behind. The worst case would be the dismantling
of such structures as described in this contribution, and the suffocation of local
initiative by a an overbearing central government. The control regime initiated
by the Xi Jinping administration makes this scenario a real possibility. The best
case would be the transformation of the current regime into one that adopts the
rule of law and allows its citizens to not only monitor bureaucrats and low-
level politicians, but also hold the decision makers in Zhongnanhai accountable.
This is not bound to happen anytime soon, but nevertheless remains a plausible
scenario for a more distant future. The third, and perhaps most realistic scenario
involves the rekindling of local initiative after the central government’s grip
over local officials loosens. The modernization and improvement of China’s
government structures would continue, for the benefit of whoever will rule China
in the future.
22
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