Screenshot from the New York Times.

News headlines on rising populism, the nuclear arms race, and emerging superpowers have an eerie ring of twentieth century international relations. And everyone, from citizens to politicians to scholars, is trying to wrap their heads around what these political developments mean. Though some of these tropes seem to have a distinctly Cold War vibe, emerging nationalist and authoritarian leaders have adapted to modern times, empowered by new data, media, and connectivity.

In this vein, “Xi Sets China on a Collision Course With History”, a New York Times article by Max Fisher, takes on recent developments in China. The article discusses two main forms that authoritarian rule can take – personalist and institutional. The latter which relies heavily on the strength of formal state institutions and the former which is now unfolding in China. Several scholars suggest that in removing term limits and consolidating power, President Xi is making moves against the collective leadership that helped make China’s unique brand of authoritarianism successful.

At the same time, China is employing novel governance tactics to emulate a measure of government responsiveness to citizens that might help shore up the government’s stability and legitimacy. This ‘bridging the gap between citizens and government’ is one of the premises on which Professor Lily Tsai founded MIT GOV/LAB stemming from her expertise on citizen engagement in China. In her book “Accountability with Democracy”, Tsai demonstrates how citizens in rural China are able to air grievances with officials through informal channels. Though limited, citizens find ways through local community groups to dissent and make demands on the government for better roads, schools, and other public services.

Screenshot from the New York Times.

Using Tsai’s framework, the New York Times article goes on to say that what started as community-led initiatives are now permitted, and even encouraged, by the central government. In other words, the state intentionally allows for flexible and locally adapted avenues of redress for citizens to ‘participate’ in a limited and controlled manner.

Not intended to speak to accountability at the national level, these participation ‘release valves’ are meant to increase government responsiveness, or at least citizens’ perception of government responsiveness. How these efforts link to President Xi’s power move remain to be seen. Tsai’s next book explores when Chinese citizens seek avenues for procedural versus retributive justice within their evolving relationship with the government.

More broadly at MIT GOV/LAB, we will be keeping an eye towards understanding the evolving relationship between government and citizens and how contextual issues of regime type, rule of law, level of economic development, and history matter.