Comparative Politics
Political Economy

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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. My dissertation 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. Although the evidence is based on China, my dissertation has broad implications for today’s dictatorships and even democracies.

In one chapter, which has been recently accepted at the American Journal of Political Science, I examine how digital surveillance shapes the strategies authoritarian regimes employ to retain power. I argue that digital surveillance empowers authoritarian governments to better control society by substituting targeted repression for non-exclusive co-optation to disrupt protest coordination. Using a difference-in-differences design based on the Chinese government’s phase-in digital surveillance programs, I find that surveillance increases both local governments’ public security expenditure and the number of political arrests but decreases public goods provision.

In the second chapter, I examine how surveillance influences citizen behavior. This chapter uses an in-the-field survey experiment with a sample of over 500 university students 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. I establish the external validity of the experimental findings with data from the Chinese General Social Survey. To estimate causal effects of digital surveillance, I use an interrupted time series design that exploits an exogenous shock to the intensity of digital surveillance and repression caused by the 2015 Tianjin Explosions in China.

The last chapter 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 and a survey with a representative sample of over 2,200 Chinese netizens to examine individuals’ attitudes towards China’s new Social Credit System (SCS) -- a surveillance system that rewards and punishes citizens based on their “creditworthiness”. I find an overall high level of support for the SCS and a positive relationship between exposure to state media and support for the SCS. More importantly, revealing information about the SCS’s role in maintaining social order increase public support whereas revealing information on the repressive nature of the SCS reduces support for it. The findings suggest that government propaganda increases public support for digital surveillance by emphasizing surveillance’s role in maintaining social order but concealing its potential for political repression.

My dissertation establishes that digital surveillance is an important tool of authoritarian control because it deters anti-regime mobilization, reduces the social costs associated with traditional, in-person surveillance, and is largely supported by the public. This work challenges the conventional wisdom that information enables authoritarian governments to make more policy concessions and contributes to a growing body of literature on information technologies and authoritarian survival. It will help policymakers and social justice advocates who seek to improve freedom and citizen welfare in authoritarian settings.

I plan to extend my dissertation into a book-length manuscript on digital surveillance in dictatorships. To establish that digital surveillance influences authoritarian government behavior beyond China, I have started coding a cross-country measure of digital surveillance and conduct global analysis on surveillance, co-optation, and repression. In addition, the project aims to examine evidence in selected cases to provide a contextual understanding of the variety of digital surveillance tools used by the world's dictatorships.