Comparative Politics
Political Economy

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Book Project





Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance

Surveillance Camera

While there has been a lot of research in the past two decades on the institutions and instruments dictators use to stay in power, not much attention is paid to state surveillance. Traditionally, autocratic regimes rely on secret police and human informants for social control. In recent decades, the world’s autocracies increasingly employ digital surveillance to spy on citizens with the help of technologies such as spyware, metadata collection, high-resolution cameras, facial recognition, and even artificial intelligence. China is a country that stands out from most of its autocratic peers in terms of both the scale and the technological advancement of digital surveillance. This book project examines the influences of digital surveillance on political repression, welfare provision, social trust, and civic engagement in authoritarian settings, using causal inference methods with archival data, intensive fieldwork, and two in-the-field survey experiments conducted among 752 college students in three universities in North, East, and West China.

This book project composes three main parts. The first part looks at how digital surveillance shapes the strategies authoritarian regimes employ to retain power. The core result is that digital surveillance increases targeted repression and decreases non-exclusive co-optation, thereby reducing citizens' welfare in authoritarian regimes. In the second part, I examine how digital surveillance influences citizen behavior. I use an in-the-field survey experiment with a sample of over 500 university students in North and West China to compare digital surveillance with traditional, informant-based surveillance. The core finding is that digital surveillance, like informant-based surveillance, deters political expression and protest participation but this digital repression, unlike human informants, does so without lowering interpersonal trust and regime legitimacy. The last part looks at public opinion on digital surveillance in authoritarian regimes. I use an original in-the-field survey experiment with a sample of over 750 college students in North, East, and West China and a nationwide survey with a sample of over 2,200 Chinese netizens to examine individuals' attitudes towards China's new Social Credit System---a surveillance system that rewards and punishes citizens based on their "creditworthiness". I find that government information control increases public support of digital surveillance by concealing its repressive potential. Together, this book provides a new look at how surveillance technology influences the politics of authoritarian control in the digital age.