The Microfoundations of Authoritarian Responsiveness:

E-Participation, Social Unrest and Public Policy in China

China’s success story of the past three decades is seen as an anomaly. Market-based reforms have generated an economic system that can hardly be described as socialist anymore, but the Communist Party of China remains in power. Although social unrest is on the rise, the CCP enjoys the consent of the overwhelming majority of its people. Most agree that China’s economic performance is the key to solving this apparent puzzle, but how can extraordinary high rates of public support be maintained in a country where income inequality is so extreme?

We believe that the answer to this question lies in the responsiveness of China’s authoritarian one-party regime to popular demands and grievances, a capability that has so far been attributed only to democratic regimes. We further believe that the rapid improvement of e-participation, the opportunity to evaluate public services on the Internet, has greatly facilitated regime responsiveness. We suggest, however, that as the government increasingly calibrates public policy towards satisfying the demand of China’s netizens, the “technologically illiterate” are forced to express their demands in public protests and other forms of social unrest.

The project, which is funded by the European Research Council, sheds light on the intended and unintended consequences of enhanced e-participation in China by exploring which social interests China’s rulers incorporate into public policy making, and how these decisions influence the propensity of particular social groups to voice their demands by either participating online or taking to the streets.

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