Bypassing Western Democracy – ICT and Governance in China

Graphic representations of political systems often remind me of engines or sick people – a shape in the middle, tubes emerging from the front and the back. The tubes are called input, output and feedback. The shape in the middle is the government. David Easton aptly refers to it as the “black box”.

It does not matter if a country is democratic or autocratic, or if we have a political system (like a tribe), but no country. The representation stays the same. It is a parsimonious representation of any political system. A country where the box is damaged or the tubes torn, or where we have a mess of boxes and tubes, we can call a “failed state”. This last image is hypothetical – there are not many graphic representations of the political systems of failed states (if you find one, please send it to me!).

Anyway, my interest lies in the tubes. What flows through these tubes is communication – to the people, by the people, and from the people. If we dare to open the black box, we find – more tubes. A mess of tubes. So many we don’t see where they start or end. This is why many prefer to keep the black box closed and leave dealing with that mess to other experts. You can’t study everything at once.

Looking at different kinds of political systems and staying with the above images, one might be tempted to call democracy the engine, and autocracy the sick person (the failed state would be a dead man). We imagine that in democracies, the tubes burst with activity because freedom of speech, elections and other forms of interest articulation encourage communication. In autocracies, however, people are not allowed to vote or to speak their mind, and only those whom the dictator loves or fears get what they want.

So what about China? Well, China’s one-party regime has very recently proclaimed itself not yet ready for the kind of elections and freedom of speech that characterize Western democracies, but despite this, I think she looks surprisingly healthy for her age. In my research project, I try to find out if fiddling with the tubes has anything to do with this.

In more technical terms, my hypothesis is that the skillful use of ICT can to some extend make up for the lack of more traditional feedback channels into the black box. ICT increase the number of channels, speed up the flow of information, and help politicians to acquire, organize, evaluate and communicate knowledge that even those traditional channels were unable to provide or produce. However, we also know that improving communication flows is extremely risky, in particular for autocratic governments. So how do political elites in autocratic regimes seek to mitigate the chances and risks of ICT?

To shed some light on this issue, I visit a number of local governments in China to examine when, how and why they have decided to use of ICT, how they use ICT to gather information about the preferences and grievances of the local population, how this information is processed, and how – or if – it motivates government action. Ultimately, the question is how these actors adapt to the opportunities and risks that ICT offer, how they use ICT to handle the growing complexities in China’s politics, economics and society, and how all this influences regime stability.

This research adds to our understanding of how governance in today’s China develops, and how ICT facilitate innovations in local governance. Eventually, I hope that I can build a theory on the foundations of this knowledge to explain the impact of ICT on the stability of different regime types, and to test it by looking at additional cases.

At this point, my hunch is that autocracies like China can use ICT to bypass their clogged arteries, but like in any heart surgery, the operation is extremely risky.

February 5, 2013

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