What’s Up with the International Criminal Court?

by Professor Prorok

Recently, Russia announced that it was withdrawing its signature from the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002.  While Russia never ratified the Rome Statute and was therefore never a State Party to the ICC, this move is worrisome for proponents of the ICC, as it comes on the heals of three prominent withdrawals by States Parties.  Russia now joins the ranks of Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia, all of whom announced their intentions to leave the court over the past month.  Some commentators believe that more countries, particularly those in Africa, are likely to follow suit and leave the court.

This recent trend of withdrawals raises a question: should we care about states leaving the ICC?  Arguably, the answer to this question depends upon whether the ICC has positive or negative effects on global politics, particularly with respect to deterring human rights abuses and promoting peace in war-torn societies.  Luckily, recent political science research begins to answer these questions about the ICC’s effectiveness for us.  Unluckily, the answer to the question of the court’s impact is not straightforward.  Here’s what we know:

  1. The ICC may actually prolong dictatorial regimes. Recent research by Nalepa and Powell shows that a strong regional ICC presence may make it less likely that dictators peacefully step down from power. This suggests that the court, under certain circumstances, actually prevents peaceful transfers of power and democratic transitions.
  1. The ICC, under certain circumstances, prolongs civil conflicts. In my own forthcoming research, I find that the ICC prolongs conflict when it initiates a preliminary examination or a formal investigation in an ongoing conflict situation. This is because the ICC’s involvement threatens key leaders of rebel groups and governments – those whose participation and cooperation is necessary to reach a settlement deal – with prosecution.  Faced with punishment at the ICC, these leaders may avoid negotiations and refuse settlement deals as long as ICC warrants remain in effect, effectively prolonging civil war.  I find that this effect is most pronounced when the risk of punishment at home is low.
  1. While the prospects for democratization and conflict termination are grim, however, the ICC does appear to improve respect for human rights. Research by Appel shows that ICC ratification leads to improved respect for human rights in ratifier states, for example. Similarly, forthcoming research by Jo and Simmons shows that ICC involvement can improve human rights practices not only among governments but also among rebel groups who have a separatist agenda and are seeking legitimacy and support from the international community.

So, should we care about the recent spate of withdrawals from the ICC?  The court has complex and multifaceted effects that are difficult to boil down to a singular ‘bad’ or ‘good’ assessment.  Ultimately, the court can be a force for justice and a promoter of human rights in the world, despite some of its more detrimental effects.  It is imperative, however, that officials within the ICC critically assess the effects of their actions moving forward.  Perhaps the recent withdrawals of Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia, as well as Russia’s decision to withdraw its signature, will prompt some self-reflection and re-examination within the ICC.

(Professor Prorok is teaching POLI:3512 International Conflict and POLI:3523 Non-State Violent Actors in the Spring 2017 semester)


Norms of Everyday Corruption in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine

by Professor Reisinger with Mary Elizabeth Snell

Having to pay a bribe to get something accomplished can be an unpleasant experience, and in many places around the world, such situations arise frequently. International relations research into corruption typically examines high-level corruption: when top officials take advantage of their positions to enrich themselves with large sums of money. The harm this does to a country is clear.

Yet low-level, or everyday, corruption involves more people and, even though less money is involved in each individual case, causes significant harm as well. Everyday corruption refers to exchanges between ordinary people and employees of the organizations that provide the services people need at one point or another, such as hospitals, schools, police departments, universities, or tax administrations. In a corrupt exchange, the official receives an unapproved compensation for performing job-related duties or providing additional benefits to the citizen. When this happens, it reduces the fairness in how the organization deals with people. It also makes the relevant laws or policies less effective. At the same time, everyday corruption may be the best way people have to get their important needs met (and so it is not always the official who initiates a corrupt transaction).

With two other faculty members, Profs. Vicki Claypool of Political Science and Marina Zaloznaya of Sociology, I have been studying patterns of everyday corruption in three countries: Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In this post, I will share a few of our findings, including some that come from work done by a current UI International Relations major, Mary Elizabeth Snell, who worked on a fellowship from the UI’s Center for Research by Undergraduates.

To understand everyday corruption better, we had a leading polling firm in each country conduct a public opinion survey with a representative sample of the country’s citizens in 2015. Respondents answered a variety of questions about their views of corruption, their political and social opinions, and whether they had been asked for or given a bribe, gift or favor to an official in the preceding year.

Among the findings to emerge from the surveys is that the three countries, despite their similar histories, have very different levels of everyday corruption. We asked everyone to indicate whether, over the preceding year, they had been asked to provide a bribe, gift or favor by an official or had provided one unasked. In Georgia, those who told us they had done so came to 4.7%, about one out of twenty. In Russia, the equivalent number was 19.7%, one out of every five Russians and over four times as many as in Georgia. Everyday corruption in Ukraine is even more common than in Russia: 26.7%. Although efforts to reduce corruption have been undertaken in all three countries, only Georgia has had some success in recent years in fighting it.

So, what explains the differences among these countries, or any set of countries for that matter? Many factors come into play, but an important one is how the country’s citizens view everyday corruption. In particular, what is their normative view–that is, what actions do they think are proper and improper? To understand this, we asked people how they view four different ways that a person might try to influence an official. Figure 1 shows what percentage in each country finds it always or sometimes acceptable to give money, to deliver a gift, to do a favor or to use connections. In all three countries, a majority of people disapprove of bribing with money (the blue bars on the left for each country). The non-monetary forms of influencing an official all receive substantially more support than that. The most widely accepted form of influence-seeking in all three countries is to give a gift. Beyond these common patterns, the chart makes clear that Georgians have the least tolerance for efforts to influence officials, particularly but not solely by means of a bribe. None of the techniques is supported by a majority of Georgians. Russians find each technique more acceptable than Ukrainians do. Despite their shared Soviet past, then, the people in these three countries do not view everyday corruption in the same way.


Because many scholars have argued that everyday corruption helps people accomplish things they could not without it, we asked our respondents which of two possible worlds they would prefer: a) one in which no public servant ever took a bribe or other special compensation, they just followed procedures; or b) one in which public servants do sometimes take something in order to provide special service. In the former world, people might find themselves out of luck in getting something they need, but impartiality would be more scrupulously observed. In the latter world, people would have a way to get around regulations when it really matters. In all three countries, large majorities said they would prefer bureaucratic officials to act impartially and never take bribes. In Georgia, 83% of the population chose the no-bribes world, while 89% did in Ukraine. Russians again showed that they have a somewhat higher acceptance of everyday corruption, with 72% choosing the no-bribes option.

So these are not societies where people view everyday corruption as a good thing on the whole. They would prefer to live in a society without it. Why, then, in their view, does their society still have it? To shed light on this, we asked why “people in my country” give bribes to officials. We asked for the first and second more important reasons from among five options: a bribe is the easiest or fastest way to get things done, the officials demand it, everyone else does it, they feel grateful to the official, or they feel sorry for the official. Figure 2 shows the responses. In all three countries, the most commonly cited reason is that giving a bribe is the easiest or fastest way to accomplish what they need. Two-thirds or more list it as the most or second-most important reason. They are indicating, in other words, that while they do not approve of bribery, sometimes they cannot make the bureaucracy work for them without it. Indirectly, they are placing the blame on the organizations which do not function well enough to serve people without bribes. In Ukraine and Russia, the other frequently cited reason even more directly blames officials: bribes are paid because citizens are being extorted for them.


To sum up: everyday corruption is an important phenomenon in all three countries, but its frequency is quite different in each one. And despite the difference in frequency, some core attitudes about corruption are shared in common. For instance, while bribery is illegal, and a majority of people in all three countries would prefer a bureaucratic system that does not pressure them to bribe, many of these same people still bribe officials when they feel they must. We hope our findings will contribute to knowledge about these countries and eventually provide a foundation for policymakers to reduce corruption.

Diversionary Theory and Voting

by Professor Martini

Somewhere in your IR classes, you have certainly heard of Diversionary Theory.  This theory is plays an important part in thinking about the relationships between leaders and the public.  Essentially, the idea is that if the domestic situation is not looking too good, then the leader may try to “divert” public attention away from this bad domestic situation and focus citizens on some sort of perceived foreign threat.  When focusing on a foreign threat, the people may then be more likely to “rally around the leader” and this should lead to better evaluations of the leader.  This is especially important for leaders getting close to an election (i.e., October Surprise), but it isn’t constrained to only being around elections (many have argued that this is what Putin has done in Russia for quite some time).

This theory makes a lot of sense.  If a leader wants to stay in office (and we assume that leaders do) and the domestic situation looks grim, then we should expect leaders to try to focus public attention to foreign issues (where leaders tend to be evaluated more positively).  The problem is that we have very mixed empirical support for this notion.  While the theory makes sense, and there is some empirical evidence to justify it, there is also evidence disproving that diversionary theory is done by leaders or that it even works.

Given this need for further clarification, Sam Schutt and I decided to explore this theory at a micro-level (individual level of analysis).   Our basic theory is that if diversionary theory holds at the individual level, then we should see a relationship between individuals focusing on a foreign policy event and the lack of correctness of their vote choice.  To put it another way, if diversionary theory works, individuals should be less likely to vote for the “correct” candidate if they are focusing on foreign policy events compared to other events.  Again, diversionary theory is not constrained to only electoral periods but our research focus is on this context.

Before I go any further, let me explain what I mean by a “correct” vote.  Here we draw from some fascinating work by Richard Lau and David Redlawsk (1997, 2006) who ran experiments in the 1990s and 2000s on voting behavior.  Individuals are never going to have full information when making a vote choice, but Lau and Redlawsk were interested in understanding how well individuals selected the correct candidate for them with the limited information voters possess (this is in comparison to if voters had full information about the candidates).  If voters selected the candidate that they would have with full information, then the idea is that they voted correctly.  Through Lau and Redlawsk’s research they were able to identify what factors went into the calculation for voting correctly and how well people typically did.  Correct voting ranged between 70 and 80% (not bad with the limited information we typically use) and some of the factors used in calculating correct voting were things like issue stances of candidates vs the respondent, group endorsements and candidate specific factors.

To test our theory, we used survey data from the 2004 American National Election Study.  We use the 2004 ANES because of the focus on foreign policy in the 2004 election and the different foreign policy focuses of the candidates (Bush with terrorism and Kerry with Iraq).  We use the correct voting measure from Lau and Redlawsk to make our dependent variable – did the individual vote correctly.  We then look at what individual’s labeled as the most important issue facing the country.  We are interested in a foreign policy issue and specifically a focus on terrorism since that is what Bush pushed heavily on.  Fortunately, about 40% of the individuals in the ANES survey stated that terrorism was the most important issue.  This variable is our primary independent variable.

Sam and I ran a number of bivariate and multivariate models to test this relationship.  We don’t have space to share them all here but let me quickly summarize our findings.  First of all, we see that in general, people who believed terrorism was the most important issue in the 2004 election were significantly less likely to vote correctly.  This lends additional support to the notion that focusing on foreign events can negatively impact voter calculations.  Secondly, and most importantly, we see that this impact on voting correctly really is conditional on who the ideal candidate was for each respondent.  In our second model we broke out only those who should have voted for Kerry and only those who should have voted for Bush and saw pretty sizable differences between the groups.  For those individuals who should have voted for Kerry, they voted correctly 71% of the time if any issue other than terrorism was the most important issue.  This drops to 46% if terrorism is the most important issue – a substantial decrease in correct voting.  In contrast, for those who should have voted for Bush, the probability of correct voting actually goes up about 5 points if terrorism becomes the most important issue.

So in the end, what is this telling us?  Most importantly, I think this research gives additional support to the idea that diversionary theory can work.  People’s ability to vote correctly really did seem to be impacted by a focus on a foreign policy issue.  Many who should have voted for Kerry did not do so if their focus was on a foreign policy issue owned by Bush.  This supports a lot of research out there but also gives us a more refined understanding of how this works because we are able to provide an individual level exploration of diversionary theory.

*** If you want to learn more about public opinion and foreign policy, Professor Martini is teaching a class on Public Opinion on War and Foreign Policy


International Relations Major Courses offered for each Track- Spring 17

*** Thanks to Martha Kirby for putting this together

Here is a list of courses approved for the International Relations Tracks that are offered in the Spring 2017 semester.  The courses in bold print with an asterisk are courses that are approved for the first time in the Spring 2017 semester.  If students choose to take one of the courses in bold with an asterisk, they should contact Martha during the spring semester to update their degree audit so that the course will be appropriately applied to their international relations major.

 International Business and Economic Relations

ECON:1100 Principles of Microeconomics 4 s.h.

ECON:1200 Principles of Macroeconomics 4 s.h.

GEOG:2910 The Global Economy 3 s.h.

*GEOG:3001 Special Topics: Perspectives on Social Entrepreneurship

ECON:3345   Global Economics and Business 3 s.h.

ECON:3620   Economic Growth and Development 3 s.h.

ECON:3750   Transportation Economics 3 s.h

ENTR:4460   Entrepreneurship and Global Trade 3 s.h.

FIN:4240       International Finance (prerequisite required) 3 s.h.

MGMT:3450 Intl Business Environment (two prereqs) 3 s.h.

MKTG:4300  International Marketing (prereqs required) 3 s.h.

*POLI:3424 Global Development 3 s.h.

POLI:3504    Globalization 3 s.h.

IS:3200         Political Economy of Int’l Development  3 s.h.

Transnational Issues

ECON:3750  Transportation Economics   3 s.h.

ECON:3760  Health Economics (two prereq required) 3 s.h.

HIST:4101    History of Human Rights 3 s.h.

HIST:4508    Medicine & Publ Hlth Latin Am 1820-2000 3 s.h.

GEOG:1020  The Global Environment 3-4 s.h.

GEOG:1070  Contemporary Environmental Issues 3 s.h.

GEOG:1090  Globalization and Geographic Diversity 3 s.h.

GEOG:2110  7 Billion & Counting: Intro to Population Dynamics 3 s.h.

GEOG:3780  U.S. Energy Policy in Global Context 3 s.h.

GWSS:2045 Working for Social Justice 3 s.h.

*GWSS:3010 Transnational Sexualities

GHS:3030     Global Health Conference 1 s.h.

GHS:3050     Global Aging 3 s.h.

GHS:3110     Health of Indigenous Peoples 3 s.h.

GHS:3720     Global Health Seminar 3 s.h.

GHS:3850     Promoting Health Globally 3 s.h.

*IS:2151        Global Migration

IS:3200         Political Economy of Int’l Development 3 s.h.

*IS:355       Special Topics in International Studies: Global Food Migrations: Community, Identity, Politics

*POLI:3424 Global Development 3 s.h.


 Regional Politics and Relationships

HIST:1604  Civilizations of Asia: Japan 3-4 s.h

HIST:4502  History of Mexico 3 s.h.

HIST:4655  China Since 1927 3 s.h

HIST:4715  African History Since 1880 3 s.h

POLI:1401  Intro to the Politics of Russia and Eurasia 3 s.h

POLI:3408  Chinese Politics and Society 3 s.h.

POLI:3420  Southeast Asia: Democracy, Identity, and Dev 3 s.h

POLI:3423  The Middle East: Policy and Diplomacy 3 s.h.

*POLI:3424 Global Development 3 s.h.

POLI:3450  Problems in Comparative Politics 3 s.h.  (but under new number)

*POLI:4050 Two Koreas: Pol Econ or Regional Rivalry

Conflict and Foreign Policy

HIST:4105  World Events in Historical Context 3 s.h.

HIST:4176  Vietnam War on Film 3 s.h.

HIST:4264  U.S.A. in a World at War 1931-1945 3 s.h.

HIST:4617 History, Memory, and Pacific War 3 s.h.

HIST:4620  Japan–U.S. Relations 3 s.h

POLI:3420  Southeast Asia: Democracy, Identity, and Dev 3 s.h

POLI:3423  The Middle East: Policy and Diplomacy 3 s.h.

POLI:3503  Politics of Terrorism 3 s.h.

POLI:3521  21st Century Technology and Warfare 3 s.h

POLI:3523 Non-State Violent Actors

*POLI:4050 Two Koreas: Pol Econ or Regional Rivalry

Opportunities in Iowa City

by Ben Hyland (International Relations BS, Economics BBA – 2018)

Throughout my college experience here at Iowa, I have learned just as much outside of Schaeffer Hall as I have within it. The University of Iowa offers first-class opportunities to get engaged on campus, and to explore international relations concepts in a real-world environment.  Groups I have been a part of here on campus include the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, the UI Lecture Committee, and UI Student Government.  Each of these organizations has allowed me to develop as a leader while putting to use applicable class topics, and I encourage all IR majors check these groups out and get involved!

Iowa City Foreign Relations Council

The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council’s mission is to promote dialogue within the Iowa City community through expert forums and speaker events .  As an intern with the Council, I had the opportunity to meet with former prime ministers, U.S. ambassadors, policy experts, and scholars.  Each brought unique insights to global issues and each one helped to expand my knowledge on the pressing news topics of today.

If you intern with ICFRC, expect to work 5-10 hours a week on a variety of different projects.  During my internship, I was primarily responsible for marketing aspects of ICFRC, communicating with our members, and collaborating with our speakers on promotional material.  I encourage anyone with keen interest in foreign policy debate or free Oyama catering to stop by a lecture or apply to be an intern.

To attend a speaker: Join the ICFRC mailing list for weekly speaker announcements and check out their page at https://icfrc.org/

To get involved: Email ICFRC Director Ed Zastrow at ICFRC@uiowa.edu to inquire about internship opportunities

University of Iowa Lecture Committee

The UI Lecture Committee is a seven student Presidential Charter Committee that hosts six to eight free lectures each semester completely open to the public.  Past lecturers have included everyone from Robert Reich to former President Bill Clinton to Nick Kristof.  In the fall current semester, our lecturers have included Nobel Prize winning rights activists, spokespeople for the United Nations, and leading Supreme Court experts.

Lecture Committee is unique in the fact that as a student representative, you are directly responsible for pitching speakers and promoting campus conversations on domestic and international issues.  As a member of Lecture Committee, if you felt that Ban-Ki Moon could pack an auditorium and give a dynamic talk, you have complete freedom to pursue him as a speaker.

Normally students spend 5-10 hours a week on Lecture Committee, researching leads, contacting agents, and brainstorming individuals that could speak to relevant issues on campus.

To attend a lecture: Look for announcements throughout campus, check out UI LC on social media, or visit the LC website at https://lectures.uiowa.edu/


To get involved: Interviews for Lecture Committee are held late in the spring semester each year.  Watch for an email in your student account and expect to submit a resume and complete an interview.

University of Iowa Student Government

Debate dorks and political science geeks unite.  The University of Iowa Student Government is an undergraduate group composed of nearly 60 individuals who oversee the allocation of funds for student organizations.  This may sound dry until you realize that each year UISG is jointly responsible for more than $1.8 million dollars, and is the direct student voice to UI administration.  In addition to these duties, UISG is tasked with pursuing initiatives to better the lives of students on campus.  International student welcome tours, Night Ride, and Cambus are just a few of the initiatives that UISG senators and executives have helped create over the years.

Apart from a weekly senate meeting, the amount of time you choose to devote to UISG is entirely dependent on your desire to get involved.  Most students spend about five hours per week on their initiatives, working with UI administrators and promoting outreach events.

To attend a senate debate: Senate meetings are held each Tuesday in the UCC Conference Center at 7pm.

To get involved: Senate elections are held in late spring each year.  Students can run independently or as a ticket.  Additionally, several At-Large Senator positions are filled each fall.  In both cases, watch for UISG emails to your student account, or check out the UISG website at



Internship and Research Experiences as an Undergraduate

by Andrey Sazonov (2016 BA International Relations)

Internships and research are central components of the college experience. Such opportunities allow students to gain vital skills while engaging in work related to a specific sphere of interest. In my case, internships and research helped me determine what career I would like to pursue in the future and allowed me to expand my expertise on topics I am passionate about. Most importantly, however, these experiences allowed me to meet incredible people who have made a significant impact on my professional and academic performance.

In the fall of 2014 I started working as an intern in the office of Congressman Dave Loebsack. During this semester-long internship I worked side by side with the office staff and was responsible for interacting with vising constituents and agencies, writing letters on behalf of the congressman, and completing various day-to-day tasks. This experience turned out to be incredibly rewarding. It allowed to me make a small difference in lives of quite a few constituents and exposed me to the inner workings of a political office. It also gave me a chance to work on projects with the senior staff members and attend a number of political and fundraising events.

The next opportunity I decided to take advantage of was an internship with the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council (ICFRC). In this capacity, I was responsible for developing program announcements and attendance lists in addition to assisting with correspondence, membership, and fundraising materials. Furthermore, I helped organize weekly luncheon lectures that involved expert speakers from various professional fields. One of the major advantages of ICFRC is that it gives its interns the valuable opportunity to interact with speakers prior to the event. It also fosters the development of skills any employer would deem essential.


After serving as an intern at ICFRC for two semesters I was able to apply my honed skills and knowledge to my newly obtained positon as a programming intern at the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities (CIVIC). This particular opportunity was unique in the sense that it allowed me to contribute to the promotion of citizen diplomacy in Iowa. I helped draft a number of proposals, organized visits of numerous international delegations, and escorted international visitors to meetings throughout Johnson County. As a consequence, I gained experience that further prepared me to take a more senior role at the Kennan Institute.

During the summer of 2016 I worked as a Staff Assistant at the Kennan Institute—a division of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This internship proved to be one of the most rewarding professional and academic experiences in my college career. I worked side-by-side with some of the most well-known Russia experts and was provided with numerous opportunities to engage in research, write briefings for senior staff members, and assist with administrative tasks. One of the most important parts of this internship was the opportunity to experience the working culture of a think tank and witness its day-to-day operations and activities. Overall, this experience reinforced my desire to pursue a career in which I would contribute to the debate regarding the future of the US-Russia relations.

While internships certainly provide benefits to undergraduate students, research opportunities are incredibly valuable as well. Over the years of my college experience I learned that research work proved to be integral to my academic development. During the Summer of 2015 I was serving as a research assistant to Professor Brian Lai and to Professor Kelly Kadera. As a consequence, I engaged in research that contributed to long-term projects being developed by the department faculty. Over the summer of 2016 I also started serving as an ICRU fellow and I have continued to work with Professor Brian Lai and Professor Nicholas Martini on the project that focuses on analysis of public opinion regarding foreign policy in Russia. Over the past few months I discovered and analyzed a number of fascinating trends in Russian public opinion and I’m certainly looking forward to contributing to this project further.

While Iowa City may not be a center of international and political activity – it certainly offers amazing opportunities for students who are interested in such areas. There are numerous ways to get involved in political and campaign work, in addition to several internationally-oriented organizations and groups. Engage in research with professors who share your area of interest, look for internships and opportunities to attend conferences, get involved with a student organization and the Honors Program – all these activities will allow you to expand your network and obtain experience that will be invaluable in the future.






Why is the Chinese Government Hyper-Responsive to Public Opinion?

by Professor Tang

[This was previously posted at IPP Review]

Few people in the democratic world expect the authoritarian government in China to respond to public opinion. Chinese leaders do not have to go through competitive elections; they frequently rely on repression to keep political dissidents at bay; and they manufacture public opinion through media control and censorship.

Yet the Chinese government is one of the most paranoid in the world when it comes to public opinion. The government-controlled Xinhua News Agency plays a major role in collecting public opinion through their national network of correspondents that in turn serves policy making. Chinese media organizations employ full time staff to monitor public opinion on the internet. They write reports for higher level government organizations in order to help them understand the public mood in anticipation of new policies and their implementation. Local governments are required by Beijing to set up websites where they can collect and respond to public requests.

Consequently, Chinese opinion surveys consistently show that more than 70 percent of survey respondents agree that their government is responsive to public opinion. In contrast, in the same surveys, only a little over 30 percent in democratic Taiwan feel the same way.

For some people, the easiest explanation is that Chinese people, living in a highly controlled society, do not really have their own opinion and they think that whatever the government says is representative of their opinion. For others, Chinese people are simply too scared to be critical of their government. But this view does not take into account the tens of thousands of mass protests and petitions taking place every year in China, many of which are covered at length in the Western media. For examples, recent high-profile incidents — such as the mining plant dispute in Shifang in 2012, the waste water processing plant dispute in Qidong in 2012, the land dispute in Wukan in 2011, and protests against a chef’s death in Shishou in 2009 and a young girl’s drowning in Wengan in 2008 — have been reported by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. These political actions suggest that in fact the Chinese people do know what they want and are not afraid of asking for it.

In their study of protests with 500 or more participants from 2003 to 2010, the US-based scholars Yanqi Tong and Shaohua Lei show that the Chinese government tolerated or made concessions in more than 90 percent of these protest cases (Tong and Lei, 2013). In the cases of the chef who fell to his death from a hotel building in Shishou and the 17-year-old girl who drowned in Wengan, both the families and local residents refused to accept the medical examiners’ reports because they did not find evidence of murder. As a result, the families and local citizens organized large protests. The higher-level governments responded by appeasing the very public they feared, and so intervened by compensating the families, regardless of the medical examiners’ findings. In the protest against the waste water processing plant in Qidong, the protesters stripped the mayor and the party secretary, and forced them to put on environmental protection T-shirts. Both officials were later fired by the higher-level government. In Jinan in 2014, a female police officer triggered another mass protest when she got into a row with some street vendors. Demonstrators dragged her out of a police car, poured water on her and made her kneel and apologize. As a result, she lost her job. In all of these cases, the state responded quickly to meet the demands of the protesters.

The CCP often relies on large scale public campaigns to mobilize mass political participation. The unintended consequence is that it encourages public political activism and mass protests.

So, what makes the authoritarian government respond to public opinion? The answer lies partially in the very fact that China does not have competitive elections. In a democracy, legitimacy is derived from following the institutional procedure of elections. The winners owe their victories to the people who voted for them. Their jobs are relatively secure until the next election. As a result, democratic leaders are more likely to respond to their own voters but less to those who didn’t vote for them, and they don’t have to respond as quickly and frequently between elections as during elections.

In China, the authoritarian government also claims that it represents the interests of the majority. Yet without competitive elections which serve as a simple but effective yardstick, the authoritarian government has no way of showing its legitimacy. It gets nervous about its image even if there are only a few protestors on the streets. While they do not hesitate to arrest the most threatening ones, Chinese officials spend a lot of time and energy in collecting and responding to public demands. Perhaps this is why people in authoritarian China feel that their government is more responsive than people in democratic Taiwan.

The deeper root of the Chinese government’s hyper-responsiveness can be found in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s political culture, which I call populist authoritarianism (Tang, 2016). Based on the ideological tradition of the Mass Line, the CCP often relies on large scale public campaigns (e.g., about anti-corruption) to mobilize mass political participation. The unintended consequence of such political mobilization is that it encourages public political activism and mass protests. In response, the central government often tries to redirect public anger towards local governments and their officials. For example, the central government in Beijing and its agencies will directly intervene in local affairs by bypassing institutional channels, dismissing problematic local officials, and compensating the protestors. Consequently, the public believes that the central government is highly responsive.

In this populist authoritarian political culture, the Chinese government enjoys strong public political support, as repeatedly shown in many surveys conducted by independent scholars and academic organizations, such as the World Values Surveys and the Pew Research Center Surveys. In fact, such political support exists even if media censorship, economic growth, “Asian values,” and political sensitivity are taken into consideration. In the Internet age, media censorship can find it difficult to prevent people from voicing their criticism. Economic growth may not be the only reason for government support, as witnessed by weak political trust in other fast-growing economies such as India, Brazil, and Mongolia. The “Asian values” theory, which attributes strong political support to political obedience, is obviously in contrast to the political activism and the large number of protests in China that is not only where Confucian social hierarchy originated, but also a revolutionary society of mass political mobilization. Finally, political sensitivity may prevent a small percentage of survey respondents from voicing dissatisfaction with the government, but political support in China is still among the strongest in the world even when the 8-10 percent of the survey respondents who would hide their distrust of the Chinese government are excluded.

So far, this system of populist authoritarianism is working. Yet such a system with a high level of mass participation, high government responsiveness, and strong public political support is inherently vulnerable. Without institutional outlets such as elections or the rule of law, public opinion can only interact directly with the state and sometimes it can fluctuate violently and cause system-wide political earthquakes, particularly during periods of elite conflict or drastic changes in the economic environment.


Tang, W. (2016). Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tong, Y., & Lei, S. (2013). Social Protest in Contemporary China, 2003-2010: Transitional Pains and Regime Legitimacy. New York: Routledge.