All FSI Projects

Political Movements in an Authoritarian Hierarchy

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Andrew Walder
Principal Investigator

This project investigates the sources of stability and conflict in authoritarian regimes, especially regimes that have a unitary national government, apply threats and repression to their own officials, and lack an exit option for bureaucrats to move into careers in a separate private sector. It also seeks to develop theories about political movements in which bureaucrats are viewed as active participants in political processes that can rapidly undermine a government.

The research focuses on China in the late 1960s. Early in that decade China had a well-organized and highly repressive system of social and political control. Yet a nationwide rebellion from 1966 to 1968 led to the collapse of regional and local governments and a state of near civil war that ended in a harsh military dictatorship. How and why did such a powerful civilian dictatorship collapse in such short order? This was one of the largest rebellions of the 20th century, and led to the deaths of well over one million people.

Past studies, which are consistent with prevailing social science theories about political protest and social movements, explain that these events were a popular response to a rare political opportunity created by Maoist officials in the top party leadership. In this view, calls to criticize civilian officials for alleged lack of loyalty to "Mao Thought" inadvertently unleashed waves of protest over other issues. This explanation views these events as a popular rebellion against the party-state, driven by underlying grievances that pitted different social groups against one another. The project aims to test this explanation alongside an alternative one—that the rapid collapse of the civilian state was due to an insurgency within the organized hierarchy of the state, as government staff rebelled against their own superiors.

The project exploits material from local histories published in China since the late 1980s. Relevant pages covering events from 1966 to 1969 in the histories of more than 2,200 Chinese counties and cities have been photocopied over the past 15 years. The project will fund the full coding of the event data contained in these materials, the collection of supplementary data about the localities, and the creation of a national-level dataset that will support the testing of alternative "mass insurgency" and "bureaucratic insurgency" explanations.