Comparative Politics
Political Economy

Xu Xu Profile Photo


Book Project





My current research focuses on digital authoritarianism and repression with a particular emphasis on digital surveillance. My other ongoing projects examine the political aspects of artificial intelligence, social media propaganda, public opinion on state repression, and state-society relations in China. My work employs a diverse array of research methodologies and data sources, such as natural and field experiments, big data, archival research, and intensive fieldwork in China.


Xu, Xu, Genia Kostka, and Xun Cao. 2022. “Information Control and Public Support for Social Credit Systems in China.” Journal of Politics. Pre-print Appendix

Critics see China’s social credit system (SCS) as a tool of surveillance and repression. Yet opinion surveys in China find considerable public support for the SCS. We explain this puzzle by focusing on citizens’ lack of knowledge regarding the repressive nature of digital surveillance in dictatorships, which can be attributed to (1) invisible and targeted repression associated with digital surveillance and (2) government propaganda and censorship further concealing its repressive potential. A field survey experiment on 750 college students in three Chinese regions shows that revealing the SCS’s repressive potential significantly reduces sup- port for the system, but emphasizing its social-order-maintenance function does not increase support. Observational evidence from the field survey and a nationwide survey of 2,028 Chinese netizens show that the support is higher if citizens knew about the SCS through state media. Our findings highlight the role of information and framing in shaping public opinion on digital surveillance.

Su, Zheng, Xu, Xu, and Xun Cao. 2022. “What explains popular support for government monitoring in China?” Journal of Information Technology & Politics Pre-print

Discussions of China's recent massive surveillance initiative often present it as evidence of a path to an Orwellian state with omnipresent fear and discontent among its citizens. However, based on a 2018 survey of a nationally representative sample, this paper finds that a large majority of Chinese citizens support various forms of state surveillance. CCTV surveillance receives the highest support (82.2%), followed by email and Internet monitoring (61.1%). Even the most intrusive policy — collecting intelligence on everyone in the country — receives support from more than 53% of citizens. Further, support for surveillance is positively associated with an individual's preference for social stability, regime satisfaction, and, to a lesser extent, trust in government. Unlike in Western societies, concern about terrorism does not have any significant correlations with citizens' attitudes toward surveillance in China. These findings might help explain why the Chinese state can expand its surveillance capacity without much open resistance from the public.

Chen, Zhiyuan, Xin Jin, and Xu Xu. 2021. “Is a Crackdown on Corruption Really Good for the Economy? Firm-level Evidence From China.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. Pre-print, Online First

We study the impact of anticorruption efforts on firm performance, exploiting an unanticipated corruption crackdown in China’s Heilongjiang province in 2004. We compare firms in the affected regions with those in other inland regions before and after the crackdown. Our main finding is an overall negative impact of the crackdown on firm productivity and entry rates. Further, these negative impacts are mainly experienced by private and foreign firms, while state-owned firms are mostly unaffected. We also present evidence concerning two potential explanations for our findings. First, the corruption crackdown may have limited bribery opportunities employed by private firms. Second, the corruption crackdown may have interfered with personal connections between private firms and government officials to a greater extent than institutional connections between state-owned firms and the government. Overall, our findings suggest that corruption crackdowns may not restore efficiency in the economy, but instead lead to worse economic outcomes, at least in the short run.

Xu, Xu. 2021. “To Repress or To Co-opt? Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance.” American Journal of Political Science. Pre-print, Post-print, Appendix

This paper studies the consequences of digital surveillance in dictatorships. I first develop an informational theory of repression and co-optation. I argue that digital surveillance resolves dictators’ information problem of not knowing individual citizens’ true anti-regime sentiments. By identifying radical opponents, digital surveillance enables dictators to substitute targeted repression for non-exclusive co-optation to forestall coordinated uprisings. My theory implies that as digital surveillance technologies advance, we should observe a rise in targeted repression and a decline in universal redistribution. Using a difference-in-differences design that exploits temporal variation in digital surveillance systems among Chinese counties, I find that surveillance increases local governments’ public security expenditure and arrests of political activists but decreases public goods provision. My theory and evidence suggest that improvements in governments’ information make citizens worse off in dictatorships.

Frantz, Erica, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Joseph Wright, and Xu Xu. 2020. “Personalization of Power and Repression in Dictatorships.” Journal of Politics. Post-print, Appendix, Reproduction Files

This article uses new data measuring gradations of personalism in authoritarian regimes to evaluate the relationship between concentration of power and patterns of repression. It shows that the personalization of power in dictatorships leads to an increase in repression. Given the rise in personalism we are witnessing globally, the findings of this study imply that repression is likely to become more prevalent in dictatorships as a consequence.

Cao, Xun, Genia Kostka, and Xu Xu. 2019. “Environmental Political Business Cycles: The Case of PM2.5 Air Pollution in Chinese Cities.” Environmental Science and Policy. 93: 92-100. Pre-print, Appendix, Slides(2015 APSA)

Chinese local leaders’ behaviors are driven by a career incentive structure in which those delivering better performances are more likely to be promoted. Local leaders signal competence when their superiors actively collect evidence to evaluate their performances: these are years leading to the end of a five-year term. To create better economic performances, local leaders lessen the enforcement of environmental regulations to reduce local industries’ production costs and/or to attract firms from other jurisdictions. Such selective enforcement creates an environmental political business cycle in which pollution increases in years leading to the year of leader turnover. The empirical analysis on a panel of Chinese prefectures of 2002-2010 reveals a U-shaped relationship between a prefecture’s party secretary’s years in office and its average annual PM2.5 level.

Xu, Xu and Xin Jin. 2018. “The Autocratic Roots of Social Distrust.” Journal of Comparative Economics. 46.1: 362-380. Pre-print, Post-print

This paper presents evidence that autocratic culture adversely affects social trust and political participation. We find that individuals whose ancestors migrated from countries with higher autocracy levels are less likely to trust others and to vote in presidential elections in the U.S. The impact of autocratic culture on trust can last for at least three generations while the impact on voting disappears after one generation. These impacts on trust and voting are also significant across Europe. We further access the robustness of our findings concerning selection into migration and other confounders such as home countries’ economic conditions, human capital stocks, and the strength of family ties.

Von Schrader, Sarah, Xu Xu, and Susanne M Bruyère. 2014. “Accommodation requests: who is asking for what?.” Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education. 28.4: 329-344. Post-print

Workplace accommodations are central to improving employment outcomes for people with and without disabilities; this study presents national estimates comparing accommodation requests and receipt as reported by individuals with and without disabilities. Estimates are developed from the May 2012 Current Population Survey Disability Supplement. The findings highlight variability in accommodation requests by disability type and status. Accommodation request rates are also presented by occupation and industry groups. As employers voice concerns about the additional burden of employing individuals with disabilities under new regulatory requirements, our findings highlight that 95% of individuals requesting an accommodation were people without disabilities.

Working Papers

Pan, Jennifer, Xu, Xu, and Yiqing Xu. “Disguised Repression: Targeting Opponents with Non-Political Crimes to Undermine Dissent” Link

Why do authoritarian regimes charge political opponents with non-political crimes when they can levy charges directly related to opponents’ political activism? We argue that doing so disguises political repression and undermines the moral authority of opponents, minimizing backlash and mobilization. To test this argument, we conduct a case study of the arrests of vocal government critics in China in 2013. Analyzing millions of Weibo posts made before and after the crackdown shows that individuals with larger online followings are more likely to be charged with non-political crimes, and those charged with non-political crimes are less likely to receive public sympathy and support. We then conduct an experiment, which shows that disguised repression decreases perceptions of dissidents’ morality, decreases people’s willingness to engage in dissent, and increases support for repression. These results challenge the assumption of public opposition to repression, showing instead why the public may support repression.

Xu, Xu. “The Unintrusive Nature of Digital Surveillance and Its Social Consequences” Link

The world has witnessed an explosion of digital surveillance in recent years. Yet we rarely saw massive surveillance states before the digital age. This paper examines citizens' reactions to digital surveillance versus in-person surveillance in dictatorships to identify potential causes for the expansion of digital surveillance. I argue that digital surveillance is less intrusive than in-person surveillance because it does not involve human intrusion into citizens' private lives. I manipulate information about surveillance operations in a field experiment among college students in two regions of China. I find that digital surveillance is less likely to undermine interpersonal trust and regime legitimacy than in-person surveillance. However, both types of surveillance are effective in discouraging political participation. In addition, I establish the external validity of the experimental results by using a nationally representative survey and a natural experiment caused by the 2015 Tianjin explosion. Overall, digital surveillance discourages political participation, and the unintrusive nature of digital surveillance suggests that it can expand rapidly without facing much resistance from society.

Jin, Xin and Xu Xu. “Incentivizing Corruption: The Unintended Consequence of Bureaucratic Promotions in China.” Link.

Conventional wisdom holds that in non-democracies, a strong central state can reward and punish local administrations through a merit-based promotion system, which should restrain corruption. But much evidence shows that rampant corruption coexists with powerful central governments. This study resolves this puzzle by incorporating bribes in a tournament model. Our model predicts that when bribes are more important than performance in superiors’ total gain, or if there is a lack of serious punishments for wrong-doing, or an increase in promotion gain, promotion can incentivize corruption. Using a fuzzy regression discontinuity design exploiting exogenous variations in officials’ likelihood of promotion from a mandatory age cutoff for bureaucratic promotion in China, combined with a unique biographical database of prefecture party secretaries and novel measures of corruption, we find that promotions encourage corruption in China. Moreover, prefecture party secretaries are more corrupt if their provincial superiors are connected to central factions, suggesting that upper-level factionalism is one of the disincentives that breaks down lower-level meritocracy.