Publicity-driven accountability in China

  • Fall 2012
Greg Distelhorst

Greg Distelhorst is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT.

By Greg Distelhorst
November 1, 2012

GEORGE ORWELL'S fictionalized dissident in1984 proposes a causal chain running from public wealth and knowledge to egalitarian democracy: "In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance."1 Yet even in today's world of democratized communications and rapid economic advance, many institutions that govern human lives are designed for top-down control, rather than responsiveness to the governed. Billions live in states where elections function poorly or not at all, and even under political democracy, hierarchies persist in the workplace, church, or family. Unaccountable authority remains omnipresent in contemporary life.

Can strong authorities be made accountable to weak constituencies? If so, how? My graduate research in China shows how media liberalization improves government accountability even in a strong, authoritarian state. The news media not only monitors unelected officials but provides a channel of public input into government, through the mechanism of publicity-driven accountability.



This role for publicity in the accountability of unelected officials was developed through two years of inductive fieldwork on the effects of media change in mainland China.2 China is frequently cited as an example of effective state control of information; the government manages multiple institutions to censor the formal news media and monitor online behavior. However, government efforts at control should be understood in the context of a decade of radical media changes. Internet use in China has grown from under ten million users in 2000 to over 500 million today. The creation of this market drew new technology firms, outside of the traditional system of news control, into the process of generating national news and created new opportunities for horizontal communication between members of the public. These media changes do more than change public conversations; they help to solve information problems faced by the authoritarian state.

A large non-democracy like China faces two information problems in running an effective state. First, political leaders manage a vast ecosystem of bureaucrats and lack information about how faithfully these agents implement policies.3 This is the traditional understanding of the principal-agent problem. A second problem regards the content of public policy. It is beneficial for even non-democracies to avoid complete reliance on coercion, seeking a modicum of voluntary public compliance with state policies. To do this, policymakers need information about the sources and extent of public discontent. Both problems are difficult to solve; there are great incentives for local officials to suppress information about their performance and conceal local discontent. In order to obtain better information about official behavior and public preferences, authoritarian regimes may allow limited media freedoms. This helps explain the empirical finding that many authoritarian states, including China, have permitted the partial-liberalization of the news media.4 When media outlets disclose malfeasance by local officials or other sources of public discontent, political leaders can respond by punishing local officials or changing policy. However, the consequences of a free media are broader than these regime-level benefits; they also alter the relationship between the public and authoritarian officials.



The news media can indeed monitor public opinion and official performance, but I argue its role extends beyond the passive transmission of social information to political elites. Journalists and media outlets are themselves social actors who can influence the content and timing of public discontent. Their control over information and public attention gives them power over officialdom, and their separation from the state (necessary for insulating them from local capture) makes them a source of public input into state policies. In addition to improving the accountability of officials to their superiors from the top down, media liberalization also serves to improve bottom-up accountability to the public.

The role of media in guiding public discontent has been exemplified by the emergence of China's major news websites.5 Prior to the 2000s, national news in China was dominated by a handful of newspapers and television broadcasts with close financial ties to the state. As China fostered the growth of technology firms to match the success of American technology stocks in the late 1990s, new web-based media portals became involved in the news industry. These firms were primarily market-oriented and sought to maximize public attention for advertising revenues. My research found that, despite strict oversight by state regulators, these firms developed tactics to exercise editorial control over public narratives of Chinese government. Forbidden from fielding their own journalists, they would instead pore over obscure local newspapers, looking for stories that might elicit a national response. When they found them, they promoted these stories from the back-pages to the national headlines. In one example, a local article with the innocuous title, "Rural Girl Drowns" was republished as a top headline: "Village Official Knocks Girl into Water, Refuses to Rescue."

These technology firms broke the state monopoly on national news, involving new social actors into the production of information about government in China. This channel of public input into the national conversation about government is one way in which media liberalization fosters improved accountability, but its complement is the increased visibility of public discontent in the Internet age.



The role of online media goes beyond focusing public discontent about certain issues; it also informs the public about the breadth of collective discontent. Under traditional communications, individuals receive useful information about the behavior of government and can form their opinions accordingly. However, they know little about how widely shared these opinions are. In the participatory media that has developed alongside Internet diffusion—such as blogs, discussion forums, and social networking sites—readers express their reactions to events and see the reactions of others. This allows officials to monitor sources of public discontent, but it also makes discontent public knowledge. Individuals can see to what extent their discontent is shared by others. This form of "collective witness" raises the stakes for government response; when political elites fail to act on discontent that is widely shared, they are viewed as even more insensitive to public opinion, further harming governing legitimacy.

China has seen a particularly rapid growth of participatory media that enable "collective witness" of governance failures. In the early years of Internet development this was primarily through discussion forums, blogs, and the comment threads of news websites. More recently, microblogging services (or weibo6) have exploded in popularity, with each major service provider claiming over 300 million subscribers. As information about government behavior spreads through these services, citizens receive information about government and the discontent of other members of society. This makes government response to public discontent even more pressing.



In today's China, the combination of information flows dictated by social actors and collective witness has produced a characteristic cycle of publicity-driven accountability: publicity, social reaction, and government response. Social actors, whether inside or outside the media, seek to publicize their grievances with government. If this publicity is successful, it elicits a social reaction that both informs political elites about social discontent and makes knowledge of discontent public. Political elites then respond to this discontent, either by punishing local officials, purchasing the acquiescence of aggrieved citizens, or changing policies to bring them in line with public interest.

The power of publicity-driven accountability in the Internet era can be illustrated by comparing cases of official abuse in the same issue area, the first from before the spread of participatory media and the second from today. In 2005, a rural lawyer sought to publicize abuses by local officials implementing China's family planning policy, including violence and forced abortions. As with many activists in China, part of his strategy was to elicit media coverage that would expose these activities. However, due to the political sensitivity of these issues in China, a media blackout kept his story from wide circulation. The last domestic journalist to successfully write about him described what happened when she tried to publish a new story. After posting the article to the magazine's website, local officials called the editors to demand its removal before it attracted attention. The relatively small online community never widely picked up the story, and the absence of public attention opened an opportunity for official repression of the lawyer and his story.

Since 2005, the online population in China has grown five-fold, to over half a billion people. In June 2012, a grisly account of a forced abortion appeared on the online forum belonging to a local newspaper. It described how Family Planning officials in rural Shaanxi had harassed and detained a woman whose pregnancy violated birth control policies, ultimately coercing her into an abortion during her eighth month of pregnancy. The post included disturbing photos of the anguished mother lying on the hospital bed and added an unremorseful response from county family planning authorities.

What started as a local forum posting was amplified by the rich media landscape that now spans media professionals and ordinary Internet users. It appeared in the morning on June 11 and was quickly reposted by other Internet users to microblogs (weibo) and other forums. By the end of the following day, a national news portal published a front-page story: "Web Exposes Shaanxi Ankang Seven-Months Pregnant Mother Suffers Forced Abortion."7 This generated a surge of public attention; web searches for "forced abortion" inside China spiked and grew for the following three days. In response to this widening negative publicity, higher level officials delivered punishment. Town and county officials were immediately suspended from their posts, and two weeks later seven local officials were punished, including the dismissal of the town chief where this occurred.

The political sensitivity of China's one-child policy was unchanged from 2005, but a vibrant online community quickly spread information and elicited a rapid response by political elites to remedy the situation, a process which recurs frequently in today's China. This is the process by which publicity-driven accountability shapes governance, making it more responsive to public discontent.



One prediction of publicity-driven accountability is that unelected officials will have more to fear from citizens who enjoy easy access to the news media. Where individuals can publicize their grievances, potentially activating public discontent and sanction from above, even unelected officials will see a potential threat to their career prospects.

To test this hypothesis, I conducted a survey experiment on over 80 officials in China. Bureaucrats from two urban economic regulators were asked in a questionnaire to examine different citizen complaints and assess how detrimental each complaint would be to their careers. While the complaints were identical from survey to survey, the identity of the complainant was randomized. In the control group, the complainant was an ordinary individual with whom these bureaucrats interacted. In the treatment group, the complaint instead originated from "a journalist." Consistent with the theory, Chinese bureaucrats rated complaints from journalists as more detrimental to their careers. This fear of journalists held across both bureaus and when we limited the sample to Communist Party members who have better information and longer career paths in government.



My study argues that the introduction of a semi-liberalized news media improves the accountability of officials to the public. While media reforms benefit political elites by solving key information problems of large states, semi-independent media outlets also exercise discretion in focusing public discontent, which makes these actors sources of social power over authoritarian officials. As a consequence, activists and other social actors attempt to guide the media in order to exert power over otherwise unaccountable officials.

While this study drew upon studies of media change, activist projects, and official incentives in contemporary China, it suggests a pathway to improved public accountability in other authoritarian regimes. Where effective bureaucratic control is combined with media liberalization, social actors can gain power over unelected officials. The case of China illustrates that even when the public is formally excluded from political selection and largely barred from forming advocacy organizations, media liberalization can contribute to public accountability.

It remains unclear whether changes in the media environment will ultimately prolong or shorten authoritarian rule. Free flows of information generate the possibility of making discontent broad public knowledge and help dissatisfied members of the public to coordinate action against the government, a role which some observers suggest digital communications played in the Arab Spring. On the other hand, by reining in official abuses and aligning policy with public opinion, media liberalization renders governance more responsive to the public. This may allow authoritarian government to remain more resilient over time. Whether it augurs a shorter or longer tenure for single-party states, publicity-driven accountability shows how incremental change within authoritarian institutions can make government more accountable to the public. The persistence of formally unaccountable hierarchy in modern life is not cause for complete despair; there exist opportunities for seeding accountability even in this seemingly barren ground.



1 The fictional author of this line is Emmanuel Goldstein, writing in the book-within-a-book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

2 The research draws upon over one hundred interviews of journalists, activists, officials, and scholars, a survey experiment on Chinese officials, case studies of various activist projects, and case studies of Internet media firms.

3 Levi, M. 1988. Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press.

4 Egorov, G. and Guriev, S. and Sonin, K. 2009. "Why resource-poor dictators allow freer media: A theory and evidence from panel data." American Political Science Review 103(4): 645-668. Lorentzen, P. 2012. "Strategic Censorship." SSRN Working Paper.

5 In 2007 and 2008 I interviewed editorial staff at China's four most popular portal websites: Sina, Tencent, Sohu, and Netease. 

Weibo (microblog) is the Chinese term for Twitter-like online message distribution services The two most popular services in China each claimed over 300 million user accounts in 2012.

7 "Web Exposes Shaanxi Ankang Seven-Months Pregnant Mother Suffers Forced Abortion."(Wangbao Shaanxi Ankang huaiyun 7 yue yunfu zao qiangzhi yinchan). Huashang BBS via Netease News. Jun 12, 2012.