Transparent Authoritarianism?: an Analysis of Political and Economic Barriers to Greater Government Transparency in China

Peter Lorentzen (UC Berkeley)
Pierre Landry (University of Pittsburgh)
John Yasuda (UC Berkeley)

Abstract: In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has experimented with a variety of mechanisms designed to improve bottom-up accountability and information flow within a fundamentally authoritarian single-party system. These include the institution of village elections, the relaxation of restrictions on journalists, and a more tolerant attitude toward small-scale protests, among other developments. The most recent such innovation has been the introduction of national regulations mandating the increased sharing of government-collected information. We exploit a newly released index of environmental transparency in Chinese cities to understand what political and economic barriers may inhibit or encourage a shift toward this new model of authoritarian rule. This exercise generates two key results. First, the financial strength of a city’s government is a crucial determinant of transparency. Establishing the institutions to collect, organize, and disseminate information is costly and remains a low priority for cash-strapped local governments. Secondly, the legacies of the planned economy still have a major influence over what municipal governments are willing or (politically) able to do. Cities whose economies are relatively dependent on a single industrial firm tend to resist implementing transparency requirements when compared to those dealing with a less concentrated industrial base.

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