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Advocates of Change in Authoritarian Regimes: How Chinese Lawyers and Chinese and Russian Journalists Stay Out of Trouble

American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper

45 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2011 Last revised: 14 May 2012

John Wagner Givens

Asian Studies Center, University of Pittsburgh

Date Written: August 17, 2011


This paper explores advocates of political change in authoritarian regimes in a comparative perspective through case studies of Chinese lawyers, Chinese journalists, and Russian journalists. We are interested in understanding how these actors manage to advocate change while still largely staying out of trouble in regimes that are known not only for stringent controls on political participation, but for harsh retribution against those who oppose them. Rather than focusing on the extent of their success in advocating change, we are interested in the tactics these actors use to protect themselves and persevere in their work. We further ask whether, how and why these tactics differ across the two types of actors and the two authoritarian regimes.

The key difference across the two regimes was the use of ‘cross-jurisdiction’ strategy by lawyers and journalists in China, but not the journalists in Russia. The reason for the use of this tactic by Chinese lawyers and journalists is that it allows them to bypass pressure from local authorities that have limited ability to retaliate against actors from other jurisdictions. Both Chinese lawyers and journalists, however, face some limitations in using this strategy, including more aggressive tactics by local authorities, and in the case of journalists, official restrictions on cross-regional supervision. Russian journalists do not seem to engage in ‘cross-jurisdiction’ reporting because of a more centralized state and the lack of administrative censorship.

The main difference we found in the tactics of journalists and lawyers was the more widespread use of self-censorship among journalists. Whereas journalists often alter their writing or wait out the sensitive times for publishing critical reports, the nature of lawyers’ work does not allow for as much self-censorship. It is also important to note that the nature of self-censorship may differ between the Chinese and Russian journalists due to the nature of the pressures they face, with the former facing more administrative censorship, and the latter more informal pressures from the state and the private sector.

Uniting all three of our actors is the embeddedness strategy, or the use various networks to stay out of trouble. For all three groups of actors, networks are an important way to get information, either about cases for lawyers, or sources for reports for journalists. In addition, all three actors use networks as protection mechanisms in case of retaliation by authorities or other groups.

We conclude that advocates of change in different authoritarian regimes generally draw from similar repertoires of tactics, but that differences in tactics highlight the impact of different types of authoritarian governance.

Keywords: state, state-society relations, lawyers, journalists, authoritarian, comparative politics, Russia, China

Suggested Citation

Givens, John Wagner, Advocates of Change in Authoritarian Regimes: How Chinese Lawyers and Chinese and Russian Journalists Stay Out of Trouble (August 17, 2011). American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

John Wagner Givens (Contact Author)

Asian Studies Center, University of Pittsburgh ( email )

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