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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Making of A Divided Leviathan: Redistribution, Information, and Authoritarian Mass Politics in China

  • Author(s): Liu, Yanjun
  • Advisor(s): Jennings, Kent
  • et al.
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Chinese people tend to disaggregate the state and see the authoritarian leviathan as divided in terms of their high trust in the central state but much lower trust in the local state. This pattern stands interestingly in contrast to that in many mature democracies, where citizens tend to trust the local state more than the central state. While the authoritarian variant of hierarchical popular legitimacy has been identified in some Chinese as well as cross-national surveys, little has been known about its formation and its influence on mass political participation and authoritarian politics. Relatedly, little attention has been paid to the roles of the multilevel architecture of government and public perceptions of it in entrenching or subverting authoritarian rule. Leveraging quasi-experiment designs, process tracing, and statistical modeling, the three studies reported here focus on China as a case in point and aim to fill the gap in the burgeoning literature on resilient and comparative authoritarianism.

Theoretically, I argue that the hierarchical popular legitimacy in China has two main contemporary sources—the unfunded populist redistribution programs launched by the central government but devolved to local governments to implement (redistributive politics), and the centralized information management permitting investigative reporting on local levels but muting criticisms toward the central government and high-level officials (information politics)—which induce the mass public to credit the central state in good times while blaming local governments in hard times. As a consequence, individuals with such a mind-set tend to seek justice from above using confrontational tactics rather than invest in demanding local democratic processes to address their grievances (contentious politics).

Empirically, to test my proposition on the politics of redistribution, I exploited the agricultural tax policy change in China as a quasi-experiment and the difference-in-difference approach. The results indicate that populist redistribution policies in China elevate public trust in the central government while decreasing that in local governments. To test my proposition on information politics, I used the media exposure of an official corruption scandal in China as a natural experiment and the regression-discontinuity approach complemented with process tracing. The results show that the effectiveness of the Chinese regime’s efforts to shape public opinion is largely contingent on the type of framing initiators and the timing of the state’s entrance into the framing process. To test my proposition about mass political participation, I employed latent class analysis for classifications of four participatory types and multinomial logistical regressions. The results reveal that a divided leviathan in mind promotes the dramatically increasing yet routinized mass agitating political activism in recent decades.

The interactions between multilevel political authorities and the mass public culminating in the making of a divided leviathan help to sustain the top-down authoritarian rule in China. By decomposing popular legitimacy vertically and connecting macro-institutional/structural processes to micro-attitudinal/behavioral dynamics, this dissertation, with its design-based empirical strategies, hopes to shed light on the sources of authoritarian survival and to provide a new avenue where the studies of authoritarian regimes, mass politics, and intergovernmental relations intersect.

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This item is under embargo until October 27, 2019.