Credit for Compliance: How Institutional Proliferation Establishes Control in China

How can autocrats secure compliance, regulate markets, and deter rule-violating behavior? Although all regimes struggle with these fundamental goals of governance, the challenge is particularly pronounced for autocrats, who remain wary of strengthening judicial institutions that are necessary for compliance and order but undermine autocratic power.

I argue that autocrats, in response to this dilemma, embark on a strategy of institutional proliferation: the creation of new mechanisms to gather and consolidate information and punish violators outside of judicial institutions. This theory and its implications are tested through an empirical examination of the controversial social credit system in China. Contrary to previous descriptions of the social credit system as primarily used for surveillance, my research shows that it addresses the major problems of existing regulatory and legal institutions by consolidating information about rule violators and doling out additional punishments.

The second part of this dissertation examines the effects of institutional proliferation. Taking advantage of the phased-in enactment of the social credit system and new panel data on assessments of rule of law in Chinese cities, I use a difference-in-differences design to show that pilot cities with the social credit system do see an improvement in the enforcement of law relative to comparable cities without it. I also explore the social credit system’s effects on individual attitudes and behavior. Using an original survey experiment, I test how knowledge of the social credit system impacts individuals’ views of local government legitimacy, state strength, and importantly, individuals’ propensity to follow rules.

This project leverages fieldwork, close readings of government documents, original data on local implementation of the social credit system, modern causal analysis tools, and survey experiments to develop and test a new theory of institutional proliferation.

Working Papers

How Competition for Patronage Shapes Government Responsiveness in China with Kaiping Chen and Jennifer Pan Under Review

Patronage is an enduring characteristic of diverse political systems. The actions of patrons have been the primary focus of the past two decades of research on patronage and clientelism. In this paper, we shift the theoretical attention to clients. We lay out an explanation of how clients in bureaucratic contexts compete with one another for spoils from patronage and the consequences of such competition. We test the observable implications of client competition by analyzing novel datasets of interactions related to government response to public grievances between county-level officials (clients) and their city-level superiors (patrons) in China. We find that competition for patronage in the Chinese bureaucracy harms government responsiveness. Compared to non-client county-level officials, client officials are more likely to engage in information campaigns that play up their diligence in resolving complaints while refuting the veracity of politically-damaging public complaints.

Local Level Incentives and Government Responsiveness in China

A burgeoning literature argues that citizen complaints in authoritarian regimes constitute an im- portant avenue through which citizens can demand better public goods provision, hold officials accountable, or uncover government wrongdoings. While extant research has identified several factors that determine responsiveness to these complaints, the pivotal role of local government in- centives, as shaped by inter-governmental relations, has not yet received sufficient attention. This paper seeks to explain local government responsiveness to citizen demands through this lens, using China as a case study. Original data of over 14,000 citizen complaints and government responses from a Chinese prefecture demonstrates that lower level officials respond more quickly to citizen complaints when monitored by their superiors, whereas citizen complaints on unmonitored forums get slower responses. Thus, oversight by higher level officials is instrumental in increasing actual government responsiveness; citizen complaints alone are not enough to spur government action. This paper contributes to the literature on semi-democratic institutions in authoritarian regimes by demonstrating how incentives of local political actors and inter-bureaucratic relations condition the effectiveness of these institutions.

Oppose Autocracy without Support for Democracy: A Study of Non-Democratic Critics in China with Tongtong Zhang Under Review

Previous research on public opinion in authoritarian regimes generally assumes that opponents of the status quo autocracy also support democracy. This paper challenges this assumption by identifying “non-democratic critics” (NDCs) in the authoritarian public: people who are dissatisfied with the current autocracy but resist adopting democracy. We develop the concept of NDCs, theorize why they exist, and test implications of this framework using interviews and an original survey across China. We find that nearly half of respondents who oppose the Chinese regime are NDCs, revealing that a substantial portion of regime dissidents do not support democracy. Compared to democrats, NDCs have a distinct set of demands from the government and higher uncertainty about the performance of democracy along these demands. We also find that NDCs are economically better-off than democrats, suggesting that unequal access to the benefits of economic development may motivate differing attitudes towards democracy among authoritarian opponents.

Towards a Unified Concept of Democratic Backsliding with Hans Lueders and Rachel Myrick Revise & Resubmit

A growing literature examines democratic backsliding, but there is little consensus on when, where, and why it occurs. Reviewing more than 100 recent articles and working papers, this research note argues that inattention to the measurement of backsliding and the underlying concept of democracy drives this disagreement. We propose three remedies. First, we outline several questions that help researchers navigate common measurement challenges. Second, we argue that conceptual confusion around backsliding is driven in large part by inconsistent definitions of democracy. We show how outlining a comprehensive concept of democracy enables researchers to better account for the diversity of instances of democratic backsliding. Our third contribution is drawing attention to a previously overlooked form of backsliding: when governments lose the effective power to govern or voters and elites increasingly disagree about truths and facts. The research note urges scholars to pay closer attention to the conceptualization and measurement of backsliding prior to empirical analysis.