Abstract: Do informal institutions, rules and norms created and enforced by social groups, promote good local governance in environments of weak democratic or bureaucratic institutions? This question is difficult to answer because of challenges in defining and measuring informal institutions and identifying their causal effects. In the paper, we investigate the effect of lineage groups, one of the most important vehicles of informal institutions in rural China, on local public goods expenditure. Using a panel dataset of 220 Chinese villages from 1986 to 2005, we find that village leaders from the two largest family clans increased local public investment considerably. This association is stronger when the clans appeared to be more cohesive. We also find that clans helped local leaders overcome the collective action problem of financing public goods, but there is little evidence suggesting that they held local leaders accountable.
Abstract: This paper aims to show that culture is an important determinant of the effectiveness of formal democratic institutions, such as elections. We collect new data to document the presence of voluntary and social organizations and the history of electoral reforms in Chinese villages. We use the presence of village temples to proxy for culture, or more specifically, for social (civic) capital. The results show that villages with temples experience much larger increases in public goods after the introduction of elections. Additional results rule out obvious alternative interpretations and suggest that generalized trust enhances village public goods provision, while personalized trust does not.
Abstract: Why would an authoritarian regime set up deliberative institutions to allow people to complain publicly if, as is often presumed, complaints facilitate protests and cause social instability? We argue that deliberation is a process of hierarchical communication not only between the government and the citizens, but also among the citizens. We show that deliberation serves two functions. First, it helps the government respond to fluctuating public opinion. Second, it can also help to reshape the citizens' beliefs. Specifically, deliberation disorganizes citizens if they find themselves split over government policies. However, if deliberation reveals that a protest can be successful, the government identifies the danger, and improves the policy to appease the opposition. When the citizens are perceived to be sufficiently homogeneous, deliberation is allowed. We further investigate two deliberative mechanisms that combine a private poll with either a committed responsiveness or a censorship strategy. To achieve the best possible payoff in both mechanisms, the government needs to constrain itself from over-manipulating citizens' learning, thus amplifying the disorganization effect.
Abstract: We develop a theory of how an authoritarian regime interactively uses information manipulation, such as propaganda or censorship, and policy improvement to prevent citizens' collective action against the regime. The government can depict the status quo policy more popularly supported than it actually is, while at the same time please citizens directly by enacting a costly reform. We show that the government's ability of making policy concessions reduces its incentive to manipulate information. Anticipating a higher chance of policy concessions and less information manipulation, citizens are more likely to believe the government-provided information, and less likely to join the collective action when they are told that the status quo is supported by many. Our model provides an explanation for the puzzling fact that reforms coexist with information control in authoritarian countries like China.
Abstract: Scholars have established that authoritarian regimes exhibit responsiveness to citizens, but our knowledge of why autocrats respond remains limited. We theorize that responsiveness may stem from rules of the institutionalized party regime, citizen engagement, and a strategy of preferential treatment of a narrow group of supporters. We test the implications of our theory using an online experiment among 2,103 Chinese counties. At baseline, we find that approximately one third of county level governments are responsive to citizen demands expressed online. Threats of collective action and threats of tattling to upper levels of government cause county governments to be considerably more responsive. However, while threats of collective action cause local officials to be more publicly responsive, threats of tattling do not have this effect. We also find that identifying as loyal, long-standing members of the Communist Party does not increase responsiveness.
Abstract: Are political insiders or outsiders more likely to complain about local government performance in nondemocratic and one-party systems? In this paper, we identify political connections as an important resource for expressing complaints about government performance in a context where governmental transparency is limited and risks of reprisal are high. Using data from both urban and rural China, we find that, although political insiders are not more dissatisfied with public services than ordinary citizens, they are more likely to contact authorities with complaints about government performance. This is likely because they have better access to authorities, more information about how the system works, and some degree of political protection. We also show that under certain conditions it is formal party membership that provides these resources, while at other times it is informal personal relationships that play a key role. A comparison of urban and rural China suggests that the importance of formal vs. informal political connections depends on the degree of institutional isomorphism between formal political institutions and local administration.
Work in Progress
"The Grand Canal, Communism, and Modern Economic Performance: A Study on the Persistence of Economic Activity in China, 1000-2012 A.D." (with Nancy Qian)
"The Emergence of Chinese Urban System: Courier Routes and Population Divergence, 1500-2010" (with Ming Lu).
"Does Intra-Party Democracy Ever Exist in China?" (with Yasheng Huang)