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Explaining Authoritarian Regime Stability in the 21st Century: The People’s Republic of China

Table of Contents:







1. Introduction……………………………………………………


2. Concepts……………………………………………………….


3. Literature Review…………………………………………….


4. Theory………………………………………………………….


5. Methodology……………………………………………………


6. Analysis…………………………………………………………


7. Conclusions………………………………………………………


During the Third Wave of democratisation, economic development assisted regime change. Yet 21st century authoritarian regimes continue to develop whilst authoritarian leaders consolidate their grip on power. This dissertation explains this observation. I find support for Modernisation Stability Theory, my revision of Modernisation Theory. I argue that unlike in earlier decades, 21st century modernisation brings widespread Internet access to authoritarian regimes. This creates online spaces where civil society can grow, whilst regimes monitor and control its development. Through selective censorship, and maintenance of the Internet as a valuable input institution for citizens, authoritarian leaders can resist demands for political reform. I test my theory using the case of China, shedding light on a neglected case, and highlighting areas for further scholarly enquiry.





































The on-going stability of authoritarian regimes in the 21st century perplexes scholars. In an age when democracy and prosperity are reaching populations worldwide, theories of regime change inform us that authoritarianism will soon be confined to history. Indeed, many scholars have neglected authoritarianism altogether, instead focussing on the consolidation of new democracies. Yet, authoritarianism persists in Eurasia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, with many strengthening rather than weakening. This dissertation explains this puzzling observation.

Modernisation theory is the most influential theory of regime transition. Developed during the 1950s, modernisation theorists argue that economic development, through industrialisation, urbanisation, rising education, and wealth generation, enlarges middle classes, cultivates civil society, and eventually, fosters demands for political reform in authoritarian regimes (Lipset 1959). Since the end of the Third Wave of democratisation in 1991, many authoritarian regimes have consolidated power and embarked on a rapid path toward modernisation. Authoritarian regimes in the Gulf have constructed modern metropolises; regimes in Asia have enjoyed double-digit growth in GDP, and a resurgent Russia has surely returned to ‘great power’ status. Limited scholarly attention has cited culture, natural resources, and political institutions as explanations.

Worryingly, research on authoritarianism has moved into a ‘post democratisation’ paradigm, with modernisation theory often abandoned by scholars (Saouli 2015, 315). This dissertation addresses this omission. I revise modernisation theory to produce Modernisation Stability Theory. Technological advances since the 1950s underpin my rationale. The growth of the Internet has become an integral feature of present-day modernisation. Third Wave transitions saw the growth of civil society and the enlargement of the middle class culminate in a push for democratic reform. The Internet presents authoritarian leaders with a way to manage and contain these demands, thus ensuring stability.

I test my theory using three hypotheses to test the relationships between modernisation and Internet growth, and Internet growth and authoritarian regime stability. The first tests the link between modernisation and Internet development, the others test the nature of the relationship between the Internet and regime stability. Existing scholarship has done little to further our understanding of these relationships. Scholarship on the Internet and regime stability, predominantly undertaken some years ago, neglects the increasingly expansive nature of Internet platforms, and thus, the opportunities that this provides authoritarian leaders.

I test Modernisation Stability Theory using the case of China, a regime that has been stable for 68 years. This choice of case addresses further shortages within the literature. Scholars citing its enigmatic nature and sheer complexity frequently neglect China as a case of enquiry. The remarkable durability and resilience of the Chinese regime, coupled with China’s increasingly authoritative global stature enhances its suitability.

Overall, I find support for Modernisation Stability Theory: the process of modernisation in the 21st century, through bringing widespread Internet coverage to authoritarian regimes, can explain their on-going stability. Specifically, I find that modernisation does account for the development of Internet platforms, and that Internet accounts for regime stability through two mechanisms: first, through the censorship of hostile, anti-regime content, and second, through the nature of the Internet as an input institution, where citizens can engage politically. Nonetheless, there is scope, and indeed a requirement for additional research. Scholars still know relatively little about authoritarian regimes. Moreover, my analysis highlights that there is a worrying shortage of research on the Chinese regime. I highlight areas in which scholars should focus to enable further improved understandings of 21st century authoritarian regime stability.


Authoritarian Regime:

In its simplest form, authoritarianism means, “rule by other means than democracy” (Brooker 2014, 3). Yet, as Sartori (1962) remarked, it has become increasingly difficult to identify exactly what democracy is not (ibid, 135). Since 1962, the task of clearly distinguishing between democracies and authoritarian regimes has become increasingly difficult. Linz (2000) divides non-democracies between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes lack guiding ideology and political mobilisation, and possess “a leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits” (ibid, 159). Linz’s definition can be loosely applied to most regimes. Nonetheless, his distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism has become increasingly obsolete, as numerous cases have emerged which fail to clearly fit into either conception (Hadenius and Teorell 2007, 144).

Consequently, scholars have sought to distinguish between different types of authoritarianism. This can be done according to competitiveness within regimes (Diamond 2002, 26). Diamond produces a scale that includes: competitive authoritarianism, hegemonic electoral authoritarianism, and ambiguous regimes (ibid). Levitsky and Way (2002) echo this approach, but focus specifically on competitive authoritarian regimes: characterised by non-free elections and abuse of state resources (ibid, 53). Conceptualising authoritarianism in terms of competitiveness is beneficial because it avoids ‘democratising bias’, whereby authoritarian regimes are inappropriately classed as non-consolidated democracies in transition, despite having been in this state for a long period of time (ibid, 51).

Others categorise regimes according to regime type. Whilst Geddes identifies: single party regimes, personalist regimes, and military regimes (Geddes 1999, 133), Hadenius and Teorell (2007) add: monarchy, no party, dominant limited multiparty, non-dominant limited multiparty, and democratic multiparty (ibid, 150). As with Linz’s distinction, this approach suffers from a lack of clarity. Regimes frequently exhibit characteristics of multiple regime types, such as Maoist China, where the regime was constructed around Mao in a personalist sense, but power was concentrated within a single party.

Overall, the literature defining authoritarian regimes is highly concentrated. This paper defines authoritarian regimes in a broad sense. Most scholarly work concerning modernisation and regime change draws a single distinction between democracy and authoritarianism. Lipset (1959), for example, defines democracy in procedural terms, where there is “a political system which supplies regular constitutional opportunities for changing the governing officials” (ibid, 71). This is characterised by: legitimate democratic political institutions including a free press, democratically elected political leaders, and a legitimate opposition (ibid). Thus, I define authoritarianism in opposite terms as: a political system where there are no regular opportunities for changing government officials, with the absence of a free press, democratically elected leaders, and a legitimate opposition. This definition encapsulates all of Geddes’s regime types, as well as Levitsky and Way’s conception of ‘competitive authoritarianism’.

Regime Stability:

Scholars are less divided in their conceptualisation of regime stability. I adopt the most common definition of regime stability, taking Mainwaring’s (1993) definition, where a stable regime is one that has existed uninterrupted for 25 years or more (ibid, 204). Given that the average lifespan of a military regime between 1972 and 2003 was 11.1 years, and the average for single party regimes was 17.8 years (Hadenius and Teorell 2007, 150), 25 years represents an above-average length of time for a regime to survive, making it suitable to allow me to analyse a puzzling case of regime stability.

Critically, ‘uninterrupted existence’ could refer to existence as an authoritarian regime, or existence as a specific regime type, such as those defined by Geddes (1999) in the previous discussion. I am concerned here with the absence of transition in 21st century authoritarian regimes, thus, I take ‘uninterrupted existence’ to mean existence as an authoritarian regime, regardless of specific regime type. The essence of this definition, the fact that a stable regime remains authoritarian for a certain time period is widely echoed in the literature. Indeed, virtually all academic research on the continued existence of authoritarian regimes makes the sole distinction between authoritarian durability, and transition to democracy (Nathan 2003; Pei 2012).

This definition is not perfect. It can, for instance, give a false impression of regime strength. This means that a regime can be classed as stable, yet be in a highly vulnerable and internally unstable state. The 1989 Democracy Movement in China adeptly exemplifies this. It saw protest and demonstration spread to some 400 cities nationwide and culminated in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) killed several hundred students (Boudreau 1991, 140). According to durability-based definitions, the 1989 Movement occurred in a stable authoritarian regime, yet this seems misguided.

Nonetheless, defining stability in terms of durability is necessary. Modernisation theory, is concerned with regime transitions and not internal stability, thus I define a stable regime as one that has remained authoritarian for 25 years or more.

Literature Review:



Scholars are divided in explaining authoritarian regime stability. Some look to culture, focussing on the role of dominant cultures within authoritarian societies. These approaches stress the incompatibility of certain religions of ideologies with liberal democracy. In the Arab World, scholars have argued for the incompatibility of Islam with democracy (Goddard 2002, 5). In East Asia, explanations centre on the incompatibility of Confucianism and liberal democracy (Fukuyama 1997, 147). Specifically, that Confucian societies favour consensus, stability, and harmony, conditions that are seldom associated with liberal democracy (ibid). For Huntington (1991), Confucian society privilege the combination rather than separation of society and state, thus, autonomous social institutions can never gain any true legitimacy in Confucian societies (ibid, 24).

Ultimately however, empirical developments have cast doubt over Huntington’s assertions. East Asia now has several consolidated democracies that are also predominantly Confucian societies, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Impressively, Taiwan now scores 91 on the Freedom House Index, making it comparable to Western European democracies (Freedom House 2017, 23). Others have cast further doubt over Huntington’s arguments. Some question the wisdom in making generalised statements concerning the compatibility of two complex phenomena, which can mean very different things in different societies (Fukuyama 1997, 147). Whilst culture may play some role in stifling political activism, its role is clearly not central. I seek more influential factors in explaining authoritarian stability.

Others argue that authoritarian regime type explains authoritarian regime stability (Hadenius and Teorell 2007; Geddes 1999). Here, both studies find that single-party regimes are the least likely transition. Applying game-theoretic analysis, Geddes argues that single-party regimes are more stable than military regimes because, whilst military leaders value the military over political office and are will thus forgive political office relatively easily, party officials have no such loyalty (Geddes 1999, 141). However, the value of regime-type theories is limited. There are numerous, stable, examples of single party regimes, supposedly the most stable regime-type. Cuba, China, and Vietnam have all been stable for over 50 years. Thus, there are clearly other factors responsible for long-term regime durability.

Some scholars emphasise political economy-based explanations of regime stability. These take several forms, but are united by their focus on the political use of economic success to enhance regime legitimacy. In the context of China, scholars point to regime maintenance of alliances with influential domestic actors through patronage (Pei 2012, 28). Moreover, the regime has ensured popular support through exerting significant control over state-owned enterprises (SOE’s). As the source of significant employment in China, the CCP can reward employees who support the regime, and punish those who do not (ibid). Other explanations of regime stability centre on ‘rentier effects’. Here, the focus concerns the extraction of rents from natural resources, which allows states to maintain high welfare spending and low taxation (ibid). Scholars cite the Arab World, where exploitation of petrochemicals has enabled regimes to invest heavily in improving living standards (Ross 2001, 325). ‘Rentier effects’ have also been important in China. Whilst not through the exploitation of natural resources, economic growth over the last two decades has improved living standards for almost all citizens ensuring on-going regime stability (Nathan 2016; Rowen 2007).

There are inconsistencies between political economy-based theories and empirical reality. Whilst China has undergone economic transformation, seeing GNI per capita PPP, a measure of average income, rising from US$990 in 1990, to $2,900 in 2000, to $9,290 in 2010 (World Bank 2017), this transition has accompanied a wide variety of socio-economic issues. High-level corruption, environmental degradation, and rapidly rising income inequality have all become increasingly salient over the past decade. These issues raise questions over the extent to which strong socio-economic performance has truly underpinned regime stability in China. Similarly, whilst the CCP maintains an unquestionable presence in many Chinese organisations, the large-scale privatisation of SOE’s in China over the past two decades has weakened ties between the CCP and workers, thus, diminishing the ability of the regime to directly coerce support through SOE apparatus (The Economist 2011, n.p.).

Political economy-based approaches, therefore, assume that economic forces are strong enough to ensure mass regime support. Some have called this into question, and developed theories of ‘authoritarian resilience’. These argue that authoritarian regimes specifically reform given institutions to increase their legitimacy to rule, or to better repress those who question their legitimacy (Nathan 2003, 6). Four strands can be distinguished: the increasing institutionalisation of leadership succession, increasing meritocracy within the regime, specialisation in repression techniques, and improving input institutions through grassroots political participation (ibid). Heydemann (2007) adds the development of international ties and public service reform (ibid, 1). Theories of authoritarian resilience are applicable to all authoritarian regimes, across all regions, and with many regimes enjoying continued stability, these theories have become increasingly dominant within the literature (Saouli 2015, 315).

I contribute to the existing literature, by looking to a phenomenon that has been largely ignored by scholars: the rise of the Internet. The political role that the Internet plays in authoritarian regimes is contested (Rød and Weidmann 2015, 338). Some scholars posit that the Internet empowers anti-regime activists by lowering the costs of collective action, as was seen in Egypt and other Arab states during the Arab Spring (ibid). Whilst others contend that the Internet empowers regimes in closely monitoring citizens (ibid, 339). Nonetheless, scholars agree that the Internet will continue to change the circumstances of both rulers and those being ruled within regimes, and is thus worthy of further study (Saich 2015, 364).

In the context of China, academics have frequently researched the socio-economic impact of widening access to the Internet in China (Chase and Mulvenon 2002; Yang 2003), but have directed less research toward understanding the political impact of this development. Of those that have analysed the role of the Internet in bringing about stability, some focus narrowly on the impact of specific forms of Internet censorship (Ringen 2016, 69), whilst others only acknowledge that the Internet prevents collective action (King et al 2013, 331). More broadly, scholarship has failed to keep pace with the continued innovations in Internet management strategies employed by authoritarian regimes (Marolt 2011). My analysis includes the latest developments in online control to establish the most accurate findings possible. In the next section, I outline the role that I believe the Internet plays in maintaining authoritarian regime stability in the 21st century.

Modernisation Stability Theory:

Economic development and authoritarian resilience are clearly important in generating on-going stability, with the role of the Internet representing a promising area of enquiry. This dissertation places the role of Internet within the broader scope of Modernisation theory. I revise Modernisation theory to show that in the 21st century, unlike in earlier decades, modernisation does not destabilise authoritarian regimes but rather stabilises them. This is because modernisation breeds technological development, which in turn, facilitates the growth of Internet access within authoritarian regimes, allowing leaders to use this resource to maintain stability. I now outline the core tenets of modernisation theory before presenting my revisions. I then formulate the hypotheses with which I test my theory.

Modernisation theory, in its broadest sense, seeks to explain change in societies over time (Huntington 1971, 286). Its encapsulating nature has spurned many offshoots. The form that I concern myself with here is Seymour Lipset’s (1959) investigation into the relationship between economic development and democracy. Lipset compares Latin American states with European and English speaking states (ibid, 71). Measuring economic development in terms of industrialisation, wealth, urbanisation, and education (ibid, 71), Lipset finds that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance it will sustain democracy” (ibid, 75). Put simply, Lipset finds that the process of modernisation lays the foundations for democracy within a society.

Modernisation is a ‘syndrome’: “once set in motion, it tends to penetrate all aspects of life, bringing occupational specialization, urbanization, rising educational levels, rising life expectancy, and rapid economic growth” (Welzel and Inglehart 2009, n.p.). Modernisation occurs in inflection points (ibid). That is, whilst the sequence of economic development bringing industrialisation, bringing urbanisation, and so forth is upheld in theory, in reality, these developments do not always follow sequentially over time. They may, in fact, rapidly increase at certain points before cooling, and they may not occur in the precise order in which modernisation theorists posit.

Nonetheless, holistic frameworks have been constructed to show how modernisation changes societies. Huntington (1993) distinguishes five developments, through which economic development changes social structures within society to encourage democratisation (ibid, 65). First, economic development increases economic wellbeing within a society, fostering trust, competence, and satisfaction (ibid). Second, development increases both provision and quality of education, giving citizens the required competencies to participate in the democratic process (ibid). Third, economic development raises societal wealth as a whole, developing skills around the notion of compromise and distribution (ibid, 66). Fourth, development forces states to liberalise their economies, increasing international linkage, and encouraging the diffusion of ideas between states (ibid). Finally, and crucially, development swells the size of the middle class (ibid). Over time, large numbers of citizens move from low skilled to high skilled jobs, giving them both the skills, and desire to engage more closely in politics.

These five developments are all critical to the growth of civil society, the vehicle through which social-relations change, making society ready to transition to democracy (ibid, 67). The concept of civil society has four fundamental characteristics: “(1) autonomous individuals and  (2) civic associations in relation to the state, (3) engaged in more or less organized activities in a (4) public sphere outside the immediate control of the state” (Yang 2003, 455). The containment of civil society is the critical role that the Internet plays in generating on going regime stability.

This therefore, represents the core puzzle that this dissertation seeks to address. How can authoritarian regimes in the 21st century continue to modernise, whilst avoiding the democratic reforms that accompanied modernisation in earlier decades? Critically, authoritarian leaders in the 21st century have one tool at their disposal that earlier leaders did not: the Internet. The development of Internet Technology (IT) has become an integral feature of 21st century modernisation. As societies industrialise and become wealthier, IT infrastructure is provided by both public and private means, to enable societies to integrate more closely in the world economy. Worldwide developments in technology since the late 1990s have meant that even in developing authoritarian regimes, most people, and certainly, most of the expanded middle classes, have access to the Internet, defined here as “a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols” (Oxford Dictionary 2017). The first hypothesis that I test concerns the development of the Internet as a part of 21st century modernisation:

Internet Modernisation Hypothesis: The development of and subsequent improvements in Internet coverage in 21st century authoritarian regimes is an integral feature of modernisation in the 21st century.

I argue that the Internet becomes vital to ensuring authoritarian stability after initial modernisation. That is, after civil society has grown and spread across a society. Whilst in earlier decades, authoritarian regimes would experience increased demand from an enlarged middle class to enact political reforms, in the 21st century; regimes use the Internet in two main ways to maintain stability.

First, the Internet acts as a forum for posting content in many different media forms: text, images, videos and more. Over time, improvements in Internet coverage, and upload and download speeds, means that the Internet becomes the dominant medium of communication for those that have access to it (Mossberger et al 2007, 1). This is especially true for middle and upper income citizens (ibid). In the United States for example, adult’s aged between 25 and 34 spend 85.6 hours per month using smartphone communication apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (Howard 2016, n.p.). As Modernisation theory informs us, demands for regime transition usually develop in the middle classes (Huntington 1993, 67). In 21st century authoritarian regimes, it is those classes that are likely to have Internet access. As such, some have argued that the growth of the Internet in authoritarian regimes could create a space where anti-regime content is posted and shared, thereby delegitimising the regime and increasing the likelihood of regime change (Kerr 2014, 1).

Thus, the first way in which regimes must use the Internet to maintain stability is by actively managing and censoring the posting of anti-regime content online. This is done in two fundamental ways. First, the censorship of anti-regime dissent prevents the spread of anti-regime sentiment; this helps to protect the legitimacy of the CCP by preventing widespread knowledge of serious atrocities or scandals involving the Party (King et al 2013, 328). Second, censorship inhibits collective action (ibid). By lowering the transaction costs of collective action, the Internet has made it easier for anti-regime groups to coordinate. Thus, censorship serves to prevent this coordination. This hypothesis is presented below:

Censorship Hypothesis: The Internet allows authoritarian regimes to resist demands for democratic reforms through the mass censorship of hostile content.

This first mechanism used by regimes is defensive in nature. It concerns the restriction of the delegitimising effect of the Internet. By contrast, the second key mechanism that I identify is active in nature. It concerns the active use of the Internet by regimes as an input institution whereby citizens can engage in political participation online. I take Verba and Nie’s (1972) definition of participation, to define it as “the set of activities by citizens, that are aimed at influencing the selection of officials and the action they take” (ibid, 2). Clearly, given that Chinese citizens cannot vote for high-level officials, the focus here lies on influencing the actions of officials. Hence, Internet-based participation may include: blog writing, social media-based debates, use of political satire, and engagement with authoritarian leaders through online communication platforms.

A key strand of Nathan’s (2003) ‘Authoritarian Resilience’ theory argues that regimes resist demands from civil society actors for political reform by continually devising new formal input institutions through which “people can use to apprise the state of their concerns” (ibid, 14). In illustrating this, Nathan refers to local level elections, legal aid programs, and regime postal addresses where citizens can mail their concerns (ibid). The Internet is clearly an input institution that can serve a similar purpose, thus, I build on Nathan’s work by analysing the value of the Internet as an input institution. Moreover, I argue that the due to its accessibility, size, and sheer scale, the Internet represents a more effective input institution than any of Nathan’s original suggestions.

In 21st century authoritarian regimes the Internet provides a forum on which civil society can develop and grow. Social media membership grows, giving citizens the opportunity to discover, understand, and comment on a wide range of contemporary and historical issues. Webpages are set up, allowing Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and social movements to advertise themselves. Geographical barriers to communication are broken down. Citizens can engage with issues in other regions, states, and continents. Likewise, citizens can communicate directly with people in other countries with ease. Online manifestations of civil society can still be managed by the state (as my Censorship Hypothesis argues), yet it is the selective censorship of online content that undergirds regime stability in this second mechanism. By allowing civil society to grow online, and by only exercising the control function when content it deemed too hostile to the regime, authoritarian leaders are left with an input institution through which citizens participate politically.

As an input institution, I posit that the Internet generates stability through two broad mechanisms. First, it allows regimes to be more responsive to citizen concerns, thus allowing popular policies to be implemented, diminishing the need for democratic transition. Second, the Internet fosters deliberation and citizen engagement. Citizens of modernising authoritarian regimes, where education is increasingly widespread, are able to use the Internet to exercise their newly developing civic skills. This occurs through deliberation on social media networks and blogs, the posting of political satire, and by following, commenting, and sharing political, social, and economically relevant content. By exercising these skills, citizens feel less restricted than in regimes in previous decades where strict repression of all non-state media would prevent citizens from doing so. Thus, the second mechanism through which the Internet underpins 21st century authoritarian regime stability is presented below:

Input Institution Hypothesis: The Internet allows authoritarian regimes to resist demands for democratic reforms through its nature as an input institution, which contains an expanded civil society through provision of an online space for political participation.

Critically, the roles outlined in my Censorship Hypothesis and Input Institution Hypothesis work in tandem to ensure stability. By censoring only the most hostile content, authoritarian leaders leave an online space in which civil society can grow, growth that is only interrupted if civil society threatens the regime. This space was not available to authoritarian leaders in earlier decades, thus explaining why 21st century regimes continue to exist in spite of economic development.


Case Selection:

To test my theory, I use a single case study methodology. That is, “an intensive study of a single unit with an aim to generalize across a larger set of units” (Gerring 2004, 341). In this instance, the unit that I study will be a nation state, specifically, China. An advantage of case study research concerns the depth at which the researcher is able to study (ibid, 347). Cross-unit studies have very little to say about the specifics of individual cases (ibid). Whilst scholars often desire to uncover the general social, economic, and political factors which shape social reality across time and space, this does not take away from the merit of better understanding the characteristics of an individual case in a specific place at a specific time. This can then be used to better understand puzzling phenomena more generally, in this case, the continued stability of authoritarian regimes in the 21st century.

I use the case of China to test my theory. First and foremost, China is an authoritarian regime. There are no regular opportunities for citizens to change leaders; there is no free press, and no legitimate opposition. Moreover, China has been a single party regime for 68 years since the Communist Revolution of 1949 (Saich 2015, 1), placing it above the stability threshold of 25. Whilst several authoritarian regimes would meet these criteria, the sheer duration that China has been stable makes it a particularly vexing case. The average life span of single party regimes is 17.8 years (Hadenius and Teorell 2007, 150). This makes the PRC’s 68-year lifespan little short of remarkable. In addition, China is an anomaly when considering modernisation theory. As I shall show, China has clearly undergone modernisation, and developed an enlarged middle class and growing civil society (Nathan 2016, 5), yet has remained rigidly authoritarian. This makes China a particularly befitting case of enquiry.

Finally, China has long been seen as an enigmatic case within social science research (Niquet-Cabestan 2008). With the world’s largest population, unique history, unparalleled economic growth, and increasingly hegemonic nature, the case of China puzzles social scientists within all disciplines. For this reason, analysis on the stability of the Chinese regime has been somewhat neglected. Prominent scholars of comparative politics have placed greater focus on continued authoritarianism in the Arab World (Saouli 2015, 315). I redress this imbalance through examination of China.


I draw data from a variety of sources. I consult large online data banks on socio-economic development from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In areas where scholarly research is absent, and primary data is unobtainable, I draw from media outlets. Primary data collected and produced by the Chinese government can lack reliability. To mitigate this, I only use this data when appropriate; it is selected with care, and used with alternate, internationally verified data where possible. I also make good use of the secondary literature on the Chinese regime.


I now test my theory using the case of China. My analysis is broken down into three sections representing each hypothesis.

  1. Internet Modernisation Hypothesis


Rapid industrialisation in China began during after the death of Mao, during the Premiership of Deng Xiaoping. Deng pioneered  ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ (Saich 2015, 55). The aim was to open up the Chinese economy to competitive forces, and engage in increased volumes of international trade in goods and services (ibid). The reforms were initiated in two parts. The first, in the late 1970s concerned the decollectivisation of agriculture, whilst the more substantial, second part undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, concerned the privatisation of state organisations, removal of protectionist barriers to trade and widespread deregulation (ibid, 56). The upsurge in primary and secondary industry soon followed (ibid, 257). Subsequently, annual GDP growth rose from 2.6% in 1990 to 8.5% in 2000, peaking at 12% in 1992 (World Bank 2017). Alongside this, GNI per capita, rose from US$990 in 1990 to US$2,900 in 2000, and $9,290 in 2010 (ibid).


Industrialisation and urbanisation acted as mutually reinforcing phenomena in China (Quan 1991, 41). The mass increase in industrial jobs following the market reforms initiated a surge in rural to urban migration (ibid). In 1953, just 13.3% of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas (China National Bureau of Statistics 2015). By 1982, this figure hit 21%, and by 2015, 56.1% of Chinese citizens lived in cities (ibid). This has had a profound impact on the size and nature of Chinese cities. In 1982, Shanghai, a port-city on China’s East coast had a population of 11.8 Million (ibid). By 2015, this figure had increased to 24 Million (ibid). Shanghai has grown into China’s centre of Industry, Commerce, and Transport (Sang 1993, 134). Whilst Shanghai is China’s ‘World City’ (Wu 2000), the rapid and all-encompassing development of cities in China has occurred across the country. Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the South, Nanjing and Hangzhou in the East, and Chengdu and Chongqing inland have all seen similar developments.

In the 21st century, for cities like Shanghai to continue to develop, and compete internationally as hubs for investment, they require widespread and high quality technological infrastructure, this includes access to the Internet. The CCP has directed significant state investment toward the development of national IT Infrastructure. Over 300 cities were given access to high-speed Internet between 2000 and 2002, with the country’s international data bandwidth expanded by a factor of 20 within the same time period (Harwit and Clark 2006, 377). Investment in IT infrastructure has been high, and consistent from the late 1990s through to the present day. The greatest step toward ensuring mass Internet access was taken in 2006, when the National People’s Congress (NPC) presented its 11th 5-year plan for socio-economic development. The plan included a provision for 4.3 Trillion Yuan investment into IT, to ensure a ‘modern and integrated’ nation (China State Council 2010, n.p.). A plan designed to ensure that China’s rapidly developing could integrate socio-economically with each other, and with the outside world.

In total, by December 2015, China had 668 Million Internet users (Griffiths 2015, n.p.). This is not to say that the other 49.7% have no high-speed access to information. By 2015, there were 93.2 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people, meaning that even those without a consistent Internet connection can receive and send information via other technological channels (ibid). The latest investments in IT infrastructure are concerned with improving Internet speeds, whilst also investing to a lesser extent in widening coverage (EFE Agencia 2015, n.p.). Average download speeds in China are 3.8 Megabits per second, this is below the international average of 4 Megabits per second, but on-going investment by the CCP will continue to improve this (ibid).

Verdict: I can confidently confirm the Internet Modernisation Hypothesis. Both industrialisation and urbanisation, two of the most significant causes, and consequences of modernisation, have laid the groundwork for the development of IT infrastructure in the PRC. Without modernisation, the CCP would not have possessed the resources necessary to develop nationwide infrastructure, nor the need for Internet connectivity more generally.

I now test whether IT development in China can explain on going regime durability.



  1. Censorship Hypothesis


The CCP has invested heavily in technology and strategy designed to control online platforms. It uses a multi-scalar strategy to manage and control online content in China (Marolt 2011, 54). This strategy can be broken down into three areas: direct censorship, self-censorship, and dynamic manipulation (ibid). Direct censorship sees the CCP oversee the blocking, filtering, and entire physical incarceration of online content that could be seen as hostile to the regime (ibid, 55). The ‘Great Firewall’ is a poignant example of direct censorship, blocking access to some foreign websites, including the BBC, Wikipedia, and Facebook (ibid).

However, direct censorship is resource intensive, requiring significant technological investment in blocking software, alongside the recruitment of many people to oversee the operation (ibid, 56). Hence, the CCP employs a diversified strategy that also includes efforts to promote self-censorship. The Information Office of China’s State Council oversees the promotion of self-censorship, at both the individual and corporate level (ibid). For the former, the Office publicises the importance of citizens exercising care when posting online. A specific example is the placing of two Internet mascots at the top of many Internet pages in China (ibid). The mascots represent the requirement to maintain ‘harmonious internet order’ at all times in the PRC (ibid, 57). With regard to the latter, the Office utilises CCP ties with large Internet firms including Alibaba, Weibo, and Baidu, China’s largest online search engine, to continually ensure that content posted on their sites is not hostile to the regime (ibid).

An example of corporate self-censorship is WeChat’s investment into photo censoring technology (Toronto Citizen Lab 2017). WeChat is a Chinese social network, and the world’s 4th largest with 806 million monthly users worldwide (ibid). Researchers found, when testing an anecdotal hypothesis that WeChat has recently begun to censor sensitive images sent between users. Indeed, 58% of images of a recent human rights scandal sent between users were removed immediately, with a further 20% being removed within 10 minutes of being sent (ibid). Although using small sample sizes, the same researchers have also found that pictures are more likely to be censored on group chats, where the potential audience is larger, and that censorship is no longer transparent, with censored material removed without warning or notification (ibid). Overall, this highlights the penetration of the state within Internet-based organisations, leading to a significantly improved ability to censor sensitive information.

Finally, the CCP manages online platforms through ‘dynamic manipulation’ (Marolt 2011, 58). This is the most opaque strategy employed by the CCP. It could involve over 300,000 ‘web commentators’, employed by the Party, trawling through social media platforms and webpages to identify and remove anti-regime material (ibid). It is estimated that 13% of all social media posts in China are censored this way (King et al 2013, 331). In addition, these individuals are responsible for the generations of pro-regime Internet content, to be placed on webpages (MacKinnon 2011, 41).

The leadership of President Xi Jinping since 2013 has reaffirmed the CCPs desire to control online life in China. In August 2013, Xi argued: the Internet is now a “major battlefield of public opinion”, and that it was imperative that the CCP harnesses its power to ensure ‘harmonious order’ (Saich 2016, 24). Xi initiated institutional reform, whereby a new, centralised, ‘Leading Group for Internet Security and Information’ was established, and separately, prison sentences were introduced for those who posted particularly slanderous anti-regime content that accrued more than 5000 hits on social media (ibid). Moreover, in January 2015, the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) was made illegal (ibid). These are tools used by citizens to access websites in other states that are currently blocked by Chinese Internet servers.

In China, censorship guarantees regime stability: through pruning particularly hostile anti-regime online content, and through curtailing online-organised collective action.

CCP Internet censorship minimised the spread of anti-regime criticism following the 2011 Zhejiang High-Speed Train crash, where 40 people died and 200 were seriously injured (BBC News 2011). The crash sparked 26 Million anti-regime posts, citing corruption as a cause of the crash (Rapoza 2011, n.p.). Citizens were angry high-level corruption had prevented the train tracks from needing to pass stringent safety criteria, eventually leading to the crash (BBC News 2011). Social media played the important role of containing the initial reaction. Censorship allowed the CCP to steer online discussion toward the heroism of the rescuers rather than the origins of the crash (ibid).

The value of CCP Internet control was visible during the case of Sun Zhigang in 2003. Police, despite having committed no crime, fatally beat Zhigang, a student from Guangzhou in Guangdong Province in South Eastern China to death (He and Warren 2011, 285). Zhigang’s parents wrote to a progressive online news website, angry about the role of police corruption in their son’s death. The story attracted widespread interest from around China, with authorities required to shut the website down to avoid the further spread of activism (ibid).

CCP online control has been valuable in curbing anti-regime environmental activism. In 2011, over 12,000 citizens protested in front of municipal government offices in the port city of Dalian in North East China (Strickland 2011, n.p.). The protest was against the construction of a new chemical plant in the area to produce plastic products for export (ibid). The protests possessed significant collective action potential, as the construction of high-pollution manufacturing infrastructure has continued to increase in China, fostering an increasingly vocal Not-In-My-Back-Yard movement (Gu 2016, 527). CCP censorship of words such as ‘Protest’, ‘Dalian’ and ‘PX’, helped to ensure that the protest was unable to spread geographically. This example highlights the strength of the CCP’s strategy in preventing collective action spurred by particularly salient issues and events.

More recently, the growth of social media in China has forced the CCP to punish Internet-famous individuals who post hostile criticisms of the CCP (Saich 2016, 24). In February 2016, the Party arrested blogger Ren Zhiqiang, whose account had 38 million followers, after he continued to post criticise President Xi’s demands for the media to show unconditional loyalty to the Party (ibid). Ren is merely one of many well-known individuals to be made an example of by the CCP. His punishment serves as a warning to others that Internet users must use online platforms with care.

The preceding examples demonstrate control of the consequences of individual controversies, whether they are corruption related, or symptomatic of poor governance.

Those who directly question the CCP’s legitimacy to rule, as protestors did in Hong Kong in September 2014 are an even greater threat to the CCP (Ringen 2016, 107). The 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’ was a protest by Hong Kong people against Beijing intervention in Hong Kong Chief Executive elections (ibid). Over 100,000 people used ‘sit-in’ tactics on the streets of Hong Kong Island. Given the parallels between the 2014 Movement and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests where students occupied the main square in central Beijing (Boudreau 1991, 140), the CCP was determined to prevent the spread of similar protests into Mainland China (Ringen 2016, 108).

As such, the CCP ordered the censorship of any news or images of the Hong Kong protests, including any images that could be used to indirectly refer to the protests, such as those of Hong Kong, or an umbrella (ibid). The speed and accuracy of online censorship prevented widespread knowledge of the protests from penetrating Chinese censors. In a poll conducted by undercover Western researchers in the Sichuan city of Chengdu, two weeks into the protests, 92 % of participants had no knowledge of any unrest in Hong Kong (ibid, 109).

Verdict: I accept the Censorship Hypothesis. There are numerous cases across both time and space that demonstrate the powerful role of CCP Internet control in allowing the CCP to resist demands for political reform. Particularly sinister regime criticisms are censored, whilst online content with collective action potential is removed before movements can begin. However, there is no counterfactual. We cannot know whether China would have been a stable authoritarian regime in the 21st century if the CCP did not censor online platforms. Nonetheless, in testing the hypothesis, we would expect to see the absence of widespread online-organised anti-regime collective action movements if the Censor hypothesis was correct. Given that this has prevailed, and given the number of ‘close-calls’ observed, such as those in Hong Kong, Zhejiang, and Dalian, I accept the censorship hypothesis.

  1. Input Institution Hypothesis


The ability of the Internet to act as an Input Institution has been acknowledged by some of China’s most influential political figures. In 2008, in a speech given at the People’s Daily newspaper, CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao remarked about the value of the Internet as a vital channel through which the CCP could “understand what citizens are feeling, and gather people’s wisdom” (Zhao 2011, 201). Moreover, in 2015, President Xi said at an Internet Conference in Beijing: “we should respect Internet users’ rights to exchange ideas and express their minds” (Phillips 2015, n.p.). Whilst the words of Party Chief’s should seldom be taken without scrutiny, the empirical reality of citizen engagement with the Internet in China does appear to support the views of Hu and Xi.

In 2017 China had 546.85 million social media users (Chiu et al 2012, n.p.). This is forecasted to grow to 679 million (ibid). Social media first arrived in China in 1994, with various online forums and communities (ibid). Blogging began to become more widely popular in the early 2000s with websites such as Renren and Jiepeng (ibid). At present, Sina Weibo and WeChat hold the vast majority of Chinese social media accounts, founded in 2009 and 2011 respectively (ibid). By 2015, Sina Weibo had 222 million subscribers with 100 million daily users (Freier 2015, n.p.). Both platforms are relatively similar to Western alternatives like Facebook and Twitter. Users have profiles; can share content, and produce small ‘microblogs’ where users can write their opinions and thoughts on any issue (Chiu et al 2012, n.p.). As my testing of the Censorship Hypothesis found, Chinese citizens using the above platforms are unlikely to be censored so long as they avoid making scathing critiques of the CCP and its politicise. This, in essence, creates a vast and relatively free forum, within which citizens can participate.

Online platforms generate continued stability by increasing the responsiveness of policy makers to the demands and concerns of citizens. To highlight this, I return to the examples highlighted in the previous section. Following the 2011 Zhejiang High-Speed train crash, Chinese rail minister, Liu Zhijun was sacked, after the expression of concerns on social media regarding his role in corrupt practices that caused the crash (BBC News 2011). Following the online outrage surrounding the death of Sun Zhigang, Premier Wen Jiabao announced that the custody and repatriation system that Zhigang found himself in prior to his death would be abolished (Human Rights Watch 2008). In addition, the detention centres would be replaces by centres to help those who are homeless and vulnerable (ibid). This represented a fundamental policy shift, where the institution that caused the controversy in the first place was fully replaced by an institution designed to directly help people like Sun Zhigang. Environmental activists have been equally successful in using social media platforms to push for policy changes. In Dalian, the location of an 12,000 strong protest, with even more citizens engaging on social media, the city government agreed to move the new chemical plant away from the city, and to implement significant anti-pollution measures to meet the demands of the protestors and online activists (Watts 2012, n.p.).

The aforementioned examples display direct online link between Chinese citizens and the CCP. The Internet has also serves as an indirect link. As an input institution, the Internet allows NGOs to engage more effectively with citizens (Yang 2003, 466). Even in 2003, the Internet helped raise awareness of Chinese environmental NGOs such as ‘Greener Beijing’, an NGO founded to lobby for stricter environmental restrictions in the city (ibid, 467). NGOs can advertise themselves online, increase membership, raise funds, and place links to Chinese governmental websites, that citizens can follow to gain a greater understanding of the CCP’s position on key issues (ibid). This aids civil society groups in gaining a robust response from the CCP on key issues that they care about. Indeed, the CCP leadership has become increasingly tolerant of NGOs generating change, due growing appreciation that “government agencies do not have the capacity to deal with all the social challenges that society faces” (Saich 2016, 25). The liberalisation of NGO registration laws has sparked sustained rises in NGO numbers up from 150,000 in 2000 to 500,000 in 2013 (The Economist 2014).

Chinese citizens tend to believe that engagement through the Internet is effective in generating policy change. A 2011 survey undertaken by Anthony Saich found that 65.2% of respondents placed trust in news transmitted via Sina Weibo, with 56.7% believing that activism via Sina Weibo was effective in tackling contemporary issues like corruption and environmental degradation (Saich 2012, 3-4). Studies such as these are plagued by small sample sizes and a lack of geographical representativeness. This particular survey was undertaken in Beijing, one of the wealthiest and most politically active parts of China. There is a need for research to be undertaken in less affluent areas, particularly in the South and West of China. Nonetheless, the overall finding does find a role for the Internet as a valuable input institution.

As an input institution, the Internet also fosters political deliberation. In China, this has been exemplified by the rise of micro-blogging undertaken by many CCP cadres (Esarey 2015, 91). Micro-blogs offer personal opinions on a wide range of contemporary socio-economic issues. In contrast to the formal, ideological style of historical communication between CCP cadres and citizens, officials frequently write in plain, apolitical language (ibid, 92). The blog kept by Lu Huanbin, a 51-year-old former head of propaganda in the Xinjiang region of China in particular, displays a high frequency of replies written to critical responses to his posts (ibid, 78). There are numerous further examples of this type of interaction.

Micro-blogging in China goes further than increasing deliberation. A growing number of bloggers use satire to mock Chinese political leaders, circumventing censorship (Esarey and Xiao 2008, 752). This was exemplified following the 2006 Sago Mine Accident in Virginia, USA. Implicitly referring to the fact that many thousands die in Chinese mines each year with little press coverage, blogger Zhong Xiaoyong posted that the accident was “a new year’s gift to the Chinese government from the American government “ (ibid, 763). The post gained over 50,000 hits within the space of two weeks (ibid). Whilst this only represents a minute example, the phenomenon of online citizen political satire has grown significantly in China. Indeed “a prominent aspect of Chinese Internet culture and politics is its playfulness. Humor, parody, satire, jokes, in textual and multimedia forms, are a staple of Chinese online experience” (Yang and Jiang, 2015, 215). Some argue that satire should be viewed as an act of protest, yet its use in China suggests that its actual purpose is more nuanced than this. The use of satire requires a robust understanding of current affairs, and then further understanding of what is and is not tolerated by the state on the Internet in China (ibid, 223). Thus, its use is an opportunity for citizens to utilise, improve, and consolidate their civic skills.

Verdict: I find support for the Input Institution Hypothesis. The clearest mechanism is through increasing policy responsiveness. There are many examples of online activism bringing change across time and space. Nonetheless, of the three hypotheses tested, this is the most contentious. I find some support for the claim that as an input institution, the Internet generates stability through increased deliberation and wider political engagement. To better understand the impact of micro-blogging and online political satire in China, more systematic scholarly enquiry is a necessity.




This dissertation has added to the literature three systematic ways. First, I have stemmed the movement of research away from modernisation theory through revising the theory itself. My development of Modernisation Stability Theory has argued that in the 21st century, the process of modernisation differs from earlier decades. The development of the Internet means that regimes can enjoy, allow, and encourage modernisation, whilst using the technology that it brings to generate on-going regime durability. The fact that the existing literature on authoritarian regime stability does not find a role for modernisation theory makes my contribution both timely and necessary.

Second, I have broadened the debate surrounding the impact of the Internet on authoritarian regime durability. In an already sparse field, existing scholarship has viewed the role of the Internet in excessively narrow terms, with scholars either focussing specifically on censorship, or specifically on certain forms of citizen input. I have argued that these roles are broader than scholars have previously argued, and both roles operate interdependently to generate on-going stability. Through testing my hypotheses, I found that I was right to hypothesise that the Internet fosters authoritarian regime stability through two mechanisms. Whilst the Censorship Hypothesis was clearly accepted, the Input Institution Hypothesis was accepted, alongside the caveat that further research is done to understand precisely how the Internet, through fostering political participation, reduces demands for political reform.

Third, I have researched a case that has received a disproportionately small volume of attention from scholars. With the world’s largest population, unique history and unparalleled economic growth, the case of China has daunted political scientists. I have attempted to address this research shortage by looking at the unique features of modernisation and the Internet in China. This has raised specific areas that require additional research. Namely, the use of online political satire, and the communication between CCP cadres and citizens through social media need to be studied in a large-scale, systematic way, to allow us to better understand their role in generating stability.

In addition to the aforementioned areas of contribution, this research has convinced me that current conceptualisations of authoritarianism require updating. Existing conceptualisations, that I summarised on in my concepts section, fail to place value on the modern-day information management that regimes continuously invest in. As I write, on the 4th May 2017, the CCP announced that staff managing websites for online retailers based in China would have to undergo government-designed training and assessment, to ensure they understand the wishes of the Party with regard to Internet content (BBC News 2017). 21st century authoritarian regimes can never stop designing and implementing strategies to control online platforms to successfully censor hostile anti-regime content. Thus, this action should be included in definitions of modern day authoritarianism. As an essential function, that all authoritarian leaders in modernising societies must fulfil, definitions of authoritarianism can and should include a reference to the continual drive that these regimes must devote to controlling the Internet.

Finally, I consider the overall value of my research in understanding authoritarian regime stability outside of China. The case of China has shown that Modernisation Stability Theory has empirical support. However, research now needs to be conducted to test the theory in other regions. Scholars should look to authoritarian regimes in Central and Latin America, the Middle East, and further regimes in Asia. Moreover, scholars should test the theory in a variety of regime types, in regimes at various stages of modernisation. This would better inform us about the strengths and weaknesses of the theory, and help to gain further understanding of the factors behind 21st century authoritarian regime stability.


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