Authoritarian collaboration Unexpected effects of open government initiatives in China
Abstract: There is a recent emergence of open government initiatives for citizen participation in policy making in China. Open government initiatives seek to increase the level of participation, deliberation and transparency in government affairs, sometimes by use of Internet fora. In contemporary political science the introduction of these initiatives in authoritarian contexts has been described as a paradox of authoritarian deliberation. This thesis uses cybernetic theory, perspectives of information steering in all systems, to resolve the paradox and present a new view on authoritarianism and autocracy. A cybernetic definition of autocracy allows for an analysis of different types of autocracy in different models of governance. The theoretical tools developed are used to define and assess the potential for democratic autocracy, representative autocracy, deliberative autocracy and collaborative autocracy in online open government initiatives in China. The argument of the thesis is that these initiatives must be understood within the environment in which they are introduced. In the case of the Chinese online environment, individuals often have limited possibilities of acting anonymously. To explore how online identity registration affects citizens, a lab-in-the-field experiment was set up. Chinese university students were invited to engage with a government sponsored online forum under conditions of both anonymity and identity registration. Previous research suggests that anonymity would lead users of online fora to be more active and produce more content. This hypothesis was partly proven false by the experiment. This study shows that users who have their identities registered, sometimes even produce more content. The study also shows that registered users tend to act against their own preferences and participate more in nationalistic debates. The concluding discussion is focused on the wider implications of these effects. If citizens are incentivized to channel their dissatisfaction as loyalty, rather than voice or exit, they might become complicit in sustaining authoritarianism. Interviews with experiment participants show that open government initiatives primarily enable deliberative and collaborative autocracy when introduced in the Chinese online environment. This has the potential of increasing the amount of dissatisfaction that citizens channel as loyalty via mechanisms of authoritarian collaboration.
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