Predoctoral Fellow Spotlight: Tongtong Zhang Examines Channels for Public Deliberation in China

Political Scientist and APARC Predoctoral Fellow Tongtong Zhang explores how the Chinese Communist Party maintains control through various forms of political communication.
Tongtong Zhang

Why would authoritarian regimes lacking electoral incentives invest in deliberative institutions designed to respond to citizen appeals? There are many reasons, according to APARC Predoctoral Fellow Tongtong Zhang, who argues that providing responses through such channels can incentivize citizens to conform to the regime and appease potential dissidents, while also informing them and the general public that organized opposition is not an effective way to pursue their interests.

Zhang is currently at work on her dissertation, entitled “Whose Voice Matters? Loyalists, Dissidents, and Responsiveness in China,” which examines this very question by looking at deliberative institutions as well as other political communications channels in China. After completing her predoctoral residency at APARC this summer and earning her PhD, she will join the Stanford Internet Observatory at FSI’s Cyber Policy Center as a Postdoctoral Scholar. While at Stanford Internet Observatory, she will collaborate with Dr. Shelby Grossman and other scholars on research projects studying authoritarian regimes’ online political communication.

In the following Q&A, Zhang discusses her research and fellowship experience at Stanford. The interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.

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Your research centers on how authoritarian regimes (particularly the Chinese government) perpetuate their rule over societal actors and how preferences and behaviors of these societal actors are shaped as a result. How did you come to develop an interest in this topic?

I think it’s a combination of my life experience in China and the literature I read in the seminars on comparative politics in my first year of PhD. Those readings introduced me to differences in the logic of governance between democratic and authoritarian governments. In democracies, the behavior of officials is mainly shaped by the incentive to win elections. In non-democracies, the governance behavior of officials is largely shaped by the desire to secure citizen compliance and, by extension, to maintain social stability. Existing literature on how autocracies obtain citizen conformity has largely focused on two strategies — co-optation and repression. However, while growing up in China, I observed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has more tools at its disposal to control the public. 

Among these tools, I am particularly interested in the fast-growing channels for public deliberation under authoritarian rule because, without free popular elections, authoritarian rulers should have little incentive to invest in these institutions designed for citizens to express grievances and make appeals to the government. So I am curious about what role these quasi-democratic, participatory institutions play in authoritarian control and how societal actors (e.g. citizens, firms) feel about and react to the regime thanks to these institutions.  

You are working on your first book project; can you tell us a bit about what to expect from it? 

The book is based on my dissertation and asks why dictators lacking electoral incentives invest in deliberative institutions that are designed to respond to citizen appeals. An overarching question is whether the government actually responds. If it does, do all citizen appeals receive equal consideration? Previous research on authoritarian responsiveness largely contends that autocrats prioritize the appeals of potential dissidents. However, my research leads me to argue that autocrats may respond to all appeals but with qualitatively different types of responses.

More specifically, I hypothesize that for autocrats, providing substantive responses — responses that resolve the appealed problems — to regime loyalists can incentivize more citizens to conform to the regime. On the other hand, providing symbolic responses — responses that are rhetorical without solving the problems — to potential participants of collective action can appease these potential dissidents while also informing them and the general public that organized opposition is not an effective way to pursue their interests. Taken together, I theorize that authoritarian officials would selectively provide substantive responses to citizens who show higher compliance with the regime’s control and that officials would selectively provide symbolic responses to citizen appeals that are more likely to elicit collective action. I support this argument using primary government documents, interviews with local officials, and original, large-scale datasets of online appeals and government responses in China.

My findings suggest the need to re-conceptualize accountability under autocracy not only as a reactive approach to appease opposition, but also as a proactive strategy to cultivate conformity.
Tongtong Zhang

You have mentioned your interest in political communication in non-democracies. What are some aspects of political communication that you find especially interesting? 

My research primarily focuses on deliberation and responsiveness in non-democracies. I am curious as to why dictators invest in deliberative institutions designed to answer citizen grievances, under what circumstances these institutions would help citizens resolve their problems, and perhaps more importantly, how these deliberative institutions shape citizen attitude towards the regime and their political behaviors.

Beyond deliberation and responsiveness, I’m also interested in other communication strategies (e.g. education, media) that authoritarian regimes use to secure citizen compliance. For example, I’m currently working on a paper studying the political behavior of teachers at Confucius Institutes (CI), the Chinese government’s overseas program for cultural and language promotion. The prevailing view in media and policy writings is that the Chinese regime prescribes specific actions that CI teachers must take (e.g. censorship) when encountering politically sensitive questions. However,  using interviews, a global survey, and experimental methods among CI teachers in over 70 countries, we find that the Chinese regime only prescribes broad goals to CI teachers, such as “defending China’s national interests,” without specifying how to pursue these goals behaviorally. We also find that under these ambiguous instructions, men and women CI teachers choose divergent behaviors to advance the regime's goals.​​

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to development in non-democracies? 

Development is a huge topic. I’m only able to provide some observations based on my research about authoritarian responsiveness. In this area, the biggest challenge I observe is still the lack of institutional channels for citizens to hold the government accountable. It is a sign of development that authoritarian governments are investing increasingly in deliberation channels, online and offline, for citizens to express grievances and demand public service. While less than 10% of appeals in my sample receive a substantive response from the government, it also shows that some citizens do get their problems resolved through these participation channels. 

Yet, when authoritarian officials fail to provide substantive responses, citizens have no legal, formal channels to punish officials. In democracies, unsatisfied petitioners can vote for the opposing party in the next election, expose government unresponsiveness to media outlets, and even sue the government in court. However, in autocracies, these methods of punishment are weak or absent. Some citizens may use non-institutional methods to punish the government, such as protesting or exposing official misconduct on social media. But these behaviors, which aim to attract a lot of public attention, are often cracked down on if they achieve this goal. Without credible punishment from the bottom-up, authoritarian officials treat these deliberative institutions as a tool for their social control rather than a channel to serve the public.

My research also finds that the Chinese central government does conduct regular audits on government responsiveness at the local level. But this top-down monitoring is largely symbolic and focuses on the quantity rather than the quality of officials’ responses to citizens. Therefore, I think that to improve government responsiveness in non-democracies, it is still crucial that the customers of these deliberation channels, that is, citizens, have some formal, legal channels to punish officials when officials fail to resolve the appealed problems. 

Your robust research methodology includes qualitative interviews, archival research, computational methods with large-scale datasets, and survey and field experiments. How did you develop this approach?

My PhD department (Political Science) provides us with many training opportunities for both quantitative and qualitative methods since our first year in the program. Our course sequences in quantitative methods and formal theory introduced me to a variety of powerful analysis tools and causal inference designs. I’ve also received quantitative training from the departments of Statistics, Communication, and Computer Science. In particular, the methods courses taught by Prof. Jennifer Pan and Prof. Dan Jurafsky helped me lay a good foundation for skills in web-scraping and natural language processing. 

My qualitative training started from the Chinese politics course sequence taught by Prof. Jean Oi. Later on, I continuously learned from Prof. Oi every time I talked with her about doing fieldwork in China. She guided me to extract and focus on the “big question” from lots of seemingly unstructured details I collected in the field, and she also gave me many helpful suggestions on what homework I should do before going to the field, how to approach people in the field, and how to design my questions and learn to improvise during the interviews. 

This combination of quantitative and qualitative training has made me a strong believer in mixed-methods research. I think that quantitative methods are powerful in showing systematic patterns and qualitative methods are powerful in uncovering the mechanism underlying these patterns. Moreover, qualitative fieldwork has helped me a lot in understanding how things actually get done at the micro level (e.g. the step-by-step workflow of a specific bureau within a municipal government when handling a citizen appeal), which I think is useful for identifying important research questions and developing hypotheses before collecting data systematically. 

Thanks to the valuable resources provided by APARC, I was able to make progress on my dissertation and several related projects.
Tongtong Zhang

Beyond your book project, what are you working on while at APARC? How has your time here aided your research?

I very much appreciate APARC’s support in the 2021-22 academic year. I was applying for postdoctoral fellowships in the past fall, and the Center’s generous funding and supportive staff have greatly helped me concentrate on market preparation. I also enjoyed the office space provided by APARC. Due to the pandemic, we were not in the office all the time but while I was there, I had very interesting conversations with several other fellows at the Center. Chatting with them broadened my horizon about the Asia-Pacific region. They also offered me some fresh perspectives on my research, which I find helpful while revising my dissertation. 

Thanks to these valuable resources provided by APARC, I was able to make progress on my dissertation and several related projects. In one paper, I show that citizen petitioners can increase government responsiveness by using certain rhetoric to communicate with local officials in China. I find that compared to appeals using a “legal script”, which invokes citizens’ legal rights to obtain public service, appeals using a script of “performance legitimacy,” which invokes the CCP’s moral commitment to deliver socio-economic welfare to the public, have a significantly higher likelihood to obtain substantive responses from local governments. Another paper I’m working on investigates how the characteristics of petitioners, appeals, and government responses change over time in China by comparing the appeals under Hu Jintao’s rule vs. appeals under Xi Jinping’s rule.

Has the global pandemic affected your ability to travel and do research? How have you adapted?

I was planning to conduct field interviews in the Sichuan province of China in 2020 and had to cancel because of the pandemic. However, on the positive side, the travel restrictions provided me with a relatively long period of time to concentrate on the quantitative parts of my dissertation and enabled me to make substantial progress on some time-consuming work such as scraping Weibo and reading and coding the posts. 

What is on the horizon for you? What's next? 

I plan to graduate this summer and will join the Stanford Internet Observatory at FSI’s Cyber Policy Center as a Postdoctoral Scholar. While at Stanford Internet Observatory, I will collaborate with Dr. Shelby Grossman and other scholars on research projects studying authoritarian regimes’ online political communication. I will also go onto the tenure-track academic market and hopefully get a faculty position in a university.

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