2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 379

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Resilient Authoritarianism Revisited

Organizer and Chair: Jing Chen, Eckerd College, USA

Discussant: Xi Chen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

While many news reports describe the rebellious actions of Chinese citizens and reveal significant grievances against authorities, the Chinese Communist Party nevertheless shows a surprising resilience in the face of massive social and economic change. How has the CCP achieved this? This panel explores the strategies the state employs to retain power, such as increasing its control over state agents, policy responsiveness to social unrest and strengthening the state’s role in the economy. Yuhua Wang’s paper looks at the strategies employed by the CCP to build the loyalty of its coercive institution - the police. The use of coercive power is an important means of obtaining political stability, but the state has not relied on repression alone. While acknowledging the effectiveness of top-down management, Christopher Heurlin and Jing Chen’s papers shift their focus to the interactions between the Chinese government and citizens. Heurlin shows how the incentives embedded in the nomenklatura system induce provincial officials to respond to protests not only with repression, but also with significant policy changes. Chen demonstrates how the central government’s concerns over regime survival motivate policy changes in response to citizen petitions. Yu Zheng’s paper takes a unique look at the role of big state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in affecting authoritarian rule. Zheng argues that dominant SOEs have increasingly become an autonomous interest group that uses their excessive market power to maximize their particularistic interest while undermining the control of state power. Xi Chen serves as discussant, and Jing Chen chairs the panel.

Protests and Policy Change: Provincial Responses to Rural Resistance to Land Takings
Christopher R. Heurlin, Bowdoin College, USA

The conventional wisdom is that authoritarian states respond to protests not with policy concessions, but primarily with repression. In this paper I challenge this conventional wisdom and show that the Chinese state has been surprisingly tolerant of protests against land takings. Indeed, in the mid-2000s the Chinese government responded to a protest wave against land takings by establishing social security insurance for landless farmers. After several provincial governments established social security insurance programs in the early 2000s, in late 2004 the central government mandated that all provincial governments establish similar programs. Utilizing an original dataset, I show that levels of protest mobilization against land takings influenced the pace of policy adoption at the provincial level. I point specifically to two mechanisms through which this process has occurred. First, protests function as a signal of citizen policy preferences. Second, institutions of top-down accountability that emphasize social stability (in this case the cadre evaluation system) make local officials vulnerable to protest mobilization. When localized protests concatenate into a larger protest wave, local and provincial officials come under pressure to meet their social stability targets and have incentives to support and even lobby for policy changes. This process is illustrated through an in-depth case study of Zhejiang province drawing upon archival materials.

Myth of China’s State Capitalism: Firm-level evidence from China
Yu Zheng, University of Connecticut, USA

This paper seeks to understand the role of big state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China’s economic and political development. It challenges the conventional wisdom that the resilience of SOEs represents an expansion of state capitalism that will advance China’s industrial policies and national interests more efficiently. Instead, the dominant SOEs have increasingly become an autonomous interest group that uses their excessive market power to maximize their particularistic interest while undermining the control of state power. These SOEs-turned oligarchs may also weaken China’s momentum for political reforms, by causing tremendous inequality and through their capture of political power. This paper uses a unique dataset of firms controlled by central SOEs to explore the relationship between firms’ political connections and their performance. In particular, it will examine how their political connections affect their business activities and productivity.

Policy Effect of Petitions in Communist China
Jing Chen, Eckerd College, USA

The CCP has strengthened its petition system in spite of its imperfections. I attribute this decision to the petition system’s positive effects on the survival of China’s decentralized authoritarianism. The petition system lends resiliency to decentralized authoritarianism in three ways. First, petitions provide higher levels of government with information about local officials’ policy implementation, public goods provision, and their abuse of power. Second, higher level governments can use this information to discipline local officials. Third, when the problem addressed by a petition is rooted in central policy, this can lead to policy revisions. This paper focuses on the policy effect of petitions. Two contemporary cases are examined in detail. The first case documents how the petitions of peasants led to reforms in agricultural tax policy and ultimately to the abolition of the agricultural tax. The second case demonstrates how citizens’ petitions resulted in the reform of urban housing demolition policy. The policy effect of petitions makes itself manifest primarily on the stage of agenda setting, policy feedback, and evaluation. Recent modifications of China’s petition system have lent this institution a greater role in consultative and veto power prior to policy making. The implication of this research is that contemporary China cannot be defined exclusively in terms of top-down management; even an authoritarian regime needs to meet its citizens halfway. The CCP adapts its policy to the demands of citizens when such responsiveness is politically expedient. In this way, CCP reinforces its claim to legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens.