The following is part of a series of posts written by MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences and in the American Journal of Political Science. The following AJPS Author Summary was first published on the AJPS website and is shared here with permission.
A growing body of research shows that authoritarian regimes can be responsive to ordinary citizens, but why is this the case? Why do those in power in authoritarian regimes expend any effort in dealing with citizens’ everyday complaints and demands when they face no pressure from electoral competition?
Do officials in these regimes respond because they fear collective action of ordinary citizens, because they are worried about sanctions from their superiors, or because responsiveness to citizens is a measure of co-option with particular attention to a core of supporters?
To answer these questions and explore the internal mechanisms of authoritarian responsiveness, we conduct an online experiment among 2,103 Chinese counties. We test whether responsiveness among local officials comes from bottom-up citizen engagement, from top-down oversight of government superiors, or from preferential treatment toward loyal supporters.
In our experiment, we made four types of requests asking for assistance in obtaining social welfare benefits on local government web forums and examined how differences in these requests affected government responses. One request simply described economic hardship (the baseline), while the other three contained the same description but also included additional information: 1) an intention to take some undefined action with other people who face similar hardship if the government cannot help (collective action requests), 2) an intention to complain to upper levels of government if the government cannot help (tattling to superiors requests), and 3) identification as loyal, long-standing Party member (Party loyalist request).
There are three main findings of our experiment. First, we find that the collective action requests and tattling to superiors requests generate higher levels of responsiveness from Chinese local governments than the simple description of economic hardship; the identification as a Party loyalist, however, does not increase responsiveness substantially. With the baseline request, we received responses from approximately one third of counties. To put this number in context, one third is higher than responsiveness of U.S. state legislators to constituents (~20%) but lower than the responsiveness among members the U.S. congress (~40%) on certain issues.  Adding the intention of collective action and tattling to superiors both increase response rates by 8-10 percentage points.
The second finding is that the collective action requests, compared with other types of requests, made the local government respond in a more public manner. This could be because local official are really concerned about social instability or because they believe responding publicly is a low-cost strategy to resolve similar problems among many citizens. Finally, we also find that local officials are more likely to provide pertinent and concrete information to citizens when receiving the collective action requests.
Together, these results show that top-down mechanisms of oversight as well as some forms of bottom-up pressure exerted by citizens can increase government responsiveness in this particular authoritarian context. Regardless of whether responsiveness derives from top-down mechanisms or bottom up pressures, citizen engagement seems to be consequential.
 Butler, Daniel M, Christopher F Karpowitz and Jeremy C Pope. 2012. “A Field Experiment on Legislators Home Styles: Service versus Policy.” The Journal of Politics 74(02):474–486.
About the Authors: Jidong Chen of Beijing Normal University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, and Yiqing Xu of University of California, San Diego have authored the article, “Sources of Authoritarian Responsiveness: A Field Experiment in China”, published in the April 2016 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, which was awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2017 MPSA Conference. (MPSA members: Log in at http://www.mpsanet.org/AJPS to access.)