The Power of Empty Promises: Quasidemocratic Institutions and Activism in China

45 Pages Posted: 6 Sep 2014 Last revised: 10 Oct 2015

Greg Distelhorst

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management

Date Written: September 24, 2015

Abstract

In authoritarian regimes, seemingly liberal reforms are often poorly implemented in practice. However, this study argues that even weak quasidemocratic institutions can offer resources to political activists. Formal institutions of participation offer politically anodyne frames for activism, allowing activists to distance themselves from political taboos. Weak institutions also allow activists to engineer institutional failures that in turn fuel legal and media-based campaigns. Evidence comes from the effects of China’s 2008 Open Government Information reform. A national field audit finds that local governments satisfy just 14% of citizen requests for basic information. Yet case studies show how Chinese activists exploited the same institution to extract concessions from government agencies and pursue policy change in disparate issue areas. These findings highlight the importance of looking beyond policy implementation to understand the effects of authoritarian institutions on political accountability.

Keywords: Non-Democratic Regimes, Political Institutions, Contentious Politics, China

Suggested Citation

Distelhorst, Greg, The Power of Empty Promises: Quasidemocratic Institutions and Activism in China (September 24, 2015). Comparative Political Studies, Forthcoming; MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2014-19; Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2491744. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2491744 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2491744

Greg Distelhorst (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management ( email )

77 Massachusetts Ave.
E62-416
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.gregdistelhorst.com

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