April, 2015
Volume 25, Issue 1

Responsive Authoritarianism in Chinese Media and other Authoritarian Contexts

Daniela Stockmann
Leiden University

In most liberal democracies commercialized and new media are taken for granted, but in most authoritarian states the introduction of advertising and new media represented a radical break from the past. What are the effects of these trends for the continuation of authoritarian rule? The scholarly discussion on media in authoritarian contexts has concentrated on the potential liberalizing role of the media in nondemocracies, and new and market-based media are often portrayed as forces that contribute to a free press and possibly democracy in authoritarian states. Only recently have scholars working on media in authoritarian regimes begun to devote more attention to the possibility that corporate and global media might function as a reactionary force that strengthens authoritarian rule.

The answers emerging in my research on China explain why scholarship about the consequences of media marketization in China and other authoritarian states has come to these two opposing conclusions, one emphasizing liberalization, the other control. Media marketization in authoritarian states contains both elements and leads to different outcomes, depending on whether the state can maintain the delicate balance between liberalization and control.

New and market-based media require a certain degree of liberalization, because market-based media need to cater towards audiences in order to make a profit and new communication technologies are faster than propaganda officials in spreading information. But this expanded social space places pressure on the authoritarian state. As a result, China is also constantly building up its capacity to control media, mostly through institutional infrastructures, in order to maintain a roughly uniform flow of political information. Therefore, China responds to the challenges posed by market-based and new media by both opening up social spaces in media while maintaining control through institutional mechanisms.

To show that liberalization and control are two sides of the same coin I draw on a new approach to state-society relations emerging in the study of China. Responsive authoritarianism is concerned with the rise of input institutions in authoritarian states, such as elections, deliberative meetings, protests, social organizations, the Internet and market-based media. These “input institutions” open up social space that creates tension between the provision of societal feedback and the threat of social disorder and authoritarian collapse. Weller (2008) and Reilly (2012) have described these dynamics as “responsive authoritarianism,” emphasizing that societal forces can be beneficial to authoritarian rule as long as the state is able to sustain the delicate balance between liberalization and control. While the discussion on input institutions in other authoritarian contexts has focused on how authoritarian leaders react to citizens as citizens provide feedback through input institutions, the discussion on China emphasizes the dynamic interplay between institutions that provide feedback and institutions that implement control in order to understand the consequences of these dynamics for the continuation of authoritarian rule.

But China is not as unique as it may seem at first glance. When comparing China to similar trends in over 30 other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the post-Soviet region, I found that many authoritarian states have been building institutions that are helping them to increase their capacity to use the Internet and market-based media for their own benefit. These states tend to be ruled by one party in the absence of competitive elections, as in China, or they tend to be dominated by one party although some competition between parties is taking place, as in Armenia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, for example. Such one-party regimes are more likely to have the institutional capacity to control information than other kinds of regimes, and can use the credibility boost entailed in new media and market-based media to their own advantage. In other kinds of regimes, such as Uganda, Belarus, or Saudi-Arabia the Internet and media marketization has a greater potential to undermine stability. China resembles other one-party regimes that have a greater capacity to restrict information flows and thus can use the Internet to their advantage.

While such comparative analysis strengthens the conclusion that responsive authoritarianism is a useful approach to explore the interplay between media and institutions in other authoritarian contexts, the first key challenge in doing comparative research in this area is the lack of data. Organizations like Freedom House and IREX do not collect information about the kinds of institutions into which media in authoritarian states are (or are not) embedded. I therefore decided to rely on regime type as a proxy variable, drawing on a broad body of literature on authoritarian regimes, showing that one-party regimes are more likely than other authoritarian regimes to build institutions, but the extent to which this also applies to media still needs further investigation. While I cite many examples in my book, scholarship on authoritarian media would benefit tremendously from developing systematic measures for institutional mechanisms of media control that can be used for comparisons across authoritarian states and by adding them to existing data sets.

A second major challenge of research on media in authoritarian contexts is an obvious social desirability bias. Social desirability bias due to political sensitivity is especially a concern in research on media credibility and trust, which is often assessed using self-report survey questions. To address these concerns I suggest the use of alternative measures in authoritarian contexts. In my own work I measured media credibility in two ways: first, by the ability of media to persuade on a specific topic, relying on a field experiment with adult citizens in Beijing, a natural experiment of changes in media persuasion during the Anti-Japanese protests in 2005, and a replication of Zaller’s exposure-acceptance model (Zaller, 1992). Persuasion is less likely to be inflated by concerns about political sensitivity, especially when choosing a non-sensitive issue to assess media effects. Second, for comparative analysis of media credibility in different regions of China and to compare China with other authoritarian regimes I calculated perceptions of credibility relative to perceptions of other institutions using Wold Value Survey data. Citizens in authoritarian states clearly distinguish between media and political institutions. By subtracting average levels of political trust among respondents from their average level of trust in media I could assess whether media are perceived as more or less credible than other institutions, independent of whether overall levels of self-reported trust in media were inflated due to social desirability bias. Results show that both percentage of Internet users and advertising income of media are highly correlated with media credibility in authoritarian regimes. These indicators could also potentially be used as proxies for media credibility in future studies.

A final challenge relates to the rise of digital methods in the field. As media in authoritarian contexts have become more accessible to researchers via the Internet, scholarship has profited tremendously from conducting online experiments, online surveys, data mining, social network analysis, and the use of other digital methods. While these provide exciting new opportunities, they also raise questions regarding research ethics as private data of citizens is often less protected in authoritarian contexts compared to liberal democracies. As I was setting up an infrastructure to conduct surveys and experiments online for a new project on social media (http://www.authoritarianism.net/), I had to make decisions regarding where to host data (on servers in reach or outside of reach of the regime?), whether to formally agree with questionable user agreements (Chinese ICT user agreements legalize access to and deletion of data for political reasons), and other risks that could potentially harm participants. Such ethical questions arose as I was confronted with the instruments through which the authoritarian state manages flows of information and data. Just like citizens living under authoritarian rule we as researchers also have to figure out how to best make use of digital methods while also dealing with state control of data that authoritarian media provide.


Reilly, J. (2012). Strong society, smart state: The rise of public opinion in China’s Japan policy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Stockmann, D. (2013). Media commercialization and authoritarian rule in China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. [Winner of the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize for best academic book on media, politics, and public affairs by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.]

Stockmann, D., & Gallagher, M. E. (2011). Remote control: How the media sustain authoritarian rule in China. Comparative Political Studies, 44(4), 436–467. http://doi.org/10.1177/0010414010394773

Zaller, J. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Weller, R. P. (2008). Responsive authoritarianism. In B. Gilley & L. Diamond (Eds.), Political change in China: Comparisons with Taiwan (pp. 117–133). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.