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Outspoken Insiders: Political Connections and Citizen Participation in Authoritarian China

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Abstract

Few political systems are completely closed to citizen participation, but in nondemocratic systems and developing democracies, such participation may come with risks. In these contexts where fear and uncertainty may be high, why do some citizens still take action and make complaints to authorities? The resource mobilization model identifies the importance of time, money, and civic skills as resources that are necessary for participation. In this paper, we build on this model and argue that political connections—close personal ties to someone working in government—can also constitute a critical resource, especially in contexts with weak democratic institutions. Using data from both urban and rural China, we find that individuals with political connections are more likely to contact authorities with complaints about government public services, despite the fact that they do not have higher levels of dissatisfaction with public service provision. We conduct various robustness checks, including a sensitivity analysis, and show that this relationship is unlikely to be driven by an incorrect model specification or unobserved confounding variables.

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Notes

  1. In the urban survey, Lhasa in Tibet was not included and Karamay replaced Urumqi in Xinjiang due to implementation issues. In the rural survey, Tibet and Xinjiang were not included for the same reason. The urban surveys conducted in 2008 and 2010 show the exact same pattern as what we report in the next section, but the questions on compliant-making are less precise and less detailed in these two waves than in the 2013 survey.

  2. Author’s interview, vice-mayor of a city within the jurisdiction of Beijing’s provincial administration, April 3, 2008.

  3. Per capita gross value of industrial output was used for stratification since it is often more reliable than official Chinese statistics on rural net per capita income and is one of the best predictors of standard of living. See Rozelle (1996). Respondents for questions about individual political attitudes and behavior were not randomly selected; survey enumerators interviewed either the first adult they encountered in the household or the household head.

  4. See Online Appendix for the complete list of options.

  5. The proportion of respondents who refused to answer the questions or were unable to do so is very small. When we use a multiple imputation procedure to deal with the missing data, the results remain almost identical.

  6. Note that these data suggest much higher rates of complaint-making that Michelson (ASR 2007). In his 2002 survey, only 6.3% of his sample reports making any kind of complaint to village leaders. One possible explanation is that their survey used local teachers as survey enumerators. While the use of local teachers has some advantage due to shared dialects, it may also have increased response bias due to political sensitivity concerns and have decreased reporting of complaint-making with local villagers being reluctant to report their complaint making to teachers who has local elites may have ties to local authorities.

  7. The high average age for the rural sample is likely due to out-migration, and the high percentage of males is likely due to the fact that household heads generally served as respondents for the survey questions on individual political attitudes and behaviors.

  8. Logistic regression models with a large set of dummy variables can potentially suffer from the “incidental parameter” problem, namely, imprecise estimation of coefficients of dummy variables due to small numbers of observations in each city district or village will cause inconsistent estimates of the coefficients in interest. For that reason, in Online Appendix Table 2, we also use a linear probability model to check the robustness of our main finding. We find that the results are very similar to those from the logistic models.

  9. See Online Appendix Table 2.

  10. We also considered other channels, such as a citizen’s civic skills (in terms of participating social activities) and civic virtue (in terms of willingness to express opinions on public affairs). These channels do not seem to be the main reasons why insiders complained more than outsiders. Controlling for related variables does not change our main results.

  11. The exact questions are: (1) “In general, do you feel happy about your life?” (2) “Are you satisfied with the living conditions of your family?” and (3) “Please score the following public services provided by the municipal government.” The list of 12 public services enumerated in this question is provided in the Online Appendix. Heating is excluded when we take averages because it is not provided by the local governments in southern China, which includes half of the sample cities.

  12. In Table 8 in Online Appendix, we also show that insiders perceived more misconduct and malfeasance of officials than outsiders. This is likely because they simply had more interactions with government officials. Controlling for the respondents’ perception of the government does not change our main findings.

  13. In the urban sample, we split the sample into four age bins: 18–30, 31–40, 41–50, and 51–60. In the rural sample, the four age bins are 16–40, 41–50, 51–60, and 61–87. We ensured that the numbers of observations in each age bin are roughly the same in each of sub-samples.

  14. We use two hypothetical questions to measure trust in urban and rural surveys (see Online Appendix for details).

  15. For a detailed explanation of the application of sensitivity analyses in program evaluation, see Imbens (2003). Hazlett (In press) provides a good example in political science.

  16. The partial correlations would be obtained by regressing the outcome variable on the unobserved confounders and the covariates, and by regressing the unobserved confounder on the treatment and the covariates, respectively.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the comments provided by Jean C. Oi, Yuen Yuen Ang, Erik H. Wang, the participants of workshops at the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. We are also grateful to the anonymous referees and the editors of Political Behavior. Thanks to My Seppo and Blair Read for valuable editorial assistance. The authors bear sole responsibility for any errors. The China Public Governance Survey (CPGS) was conducted by Unirule Institute of Economics, a Beijing based think-tank, and HorizonKey, a survey company. The China Rural Governance Survey (CRGS) was conducted by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The authors appreciate the assistance of these organizations in providing the data. The views expressed in this paper, however, are the authors’ own.

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Correspondence to Lily L. Tsai.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments of comparable ethical standards.

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Replication data and code for this paper can be downloaded from https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/VXVBNI.

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Tsai, L.L., Xu, Y. Outspoken Insiders: Political Connections and Citizen Participation in Authoritarian China. Polit Behav 40, 629–657 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-017-9416-6

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