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Retrofitting Communism : : Consultative Autocracy in China


Proponents of deliberative democracy argue that it enhances procedural democracy by bringing policymakers and the public closer together and by generating new alternatives rather than just choices. But what role does deliberation play under autocracy, where basic democratic institutions are absent? In China, citizens cannot elect their governments but are regularly consulted on matters of governance and policymaking. For example, all national and many sub-national policy initiatives in China currently proceed through at least one round of public consultation prior to adoption. Why do non-democratic regimes consult their citizens? One explanation is that consultation is simply "window dressing" for an otherwise authoritarian decision-making process. Indeed, no new political actors are empowered, the outcomes are non- binding, and critical comments can be kept private. But why then is the Chinese regime investing resources into a politically inconsequential activity? Similarly, why are hundreds of thousands of citizens voicing comments and criticisms if they have no effect? I argue that consultative autocracy is more than window dressing. In particular, I argue that public consultation helps inform and legitimate the policymaking process, contributing to more durable and legitimate policy outcomes. Testing these arguments required overcoming several empirical challenges. For example, public consultation is not randomly distributed, and policy outcomes are issue- specific, making them difficult to generalize. To address non-random selection, I created an extensive sub-national policy database that allows me to identify the effects of consultation across unique policy initiatives implemented in different parts of the country. To proxy for policy outcomes, I measured amendment and repeal rates, which should be lower among more effective policies. I find that no policies adopted with consultation have yet been repealed and that their amendment rates are significantly lower as well. To measure the legitimizing effects of consultation, I took advantage of a budget deliberation experiment in Zeguo, China, where participants are randomly selected to participate in annual budget deliberations. In January 2012, after multiple interviews with political leaders and legislative delegates in Zeguo, I organized a survey of the participant cohort along with a representative sample of non-participants. Survey results demonstrate that approval for local government and its policies is significantly higher among participants than non-participants but that consultation has no positive effect on views towards the central leadership

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