Elite Competition, Local Extraction, and Mass Protest: Evidence from China

What explains the occurrence of massive protest events in authoritarian regimes? This study contends that the pattern of social protest in China reflects subnational elite competition at the local level because cadre promotion systems incentivize local elites to compete in the economic field by extracting local resources, and these efforts often trigger local protest. Using original protest data that records massive local resistance from China, I find that Chinese social protest is associated with local elite competition in a nonlinear pattern. A rising intensity in local competition encourages greater extraction efforts and often triggers more resistances; however, excessive competition among officials discourages extraction and reduces social backlashes because officials fear that too much social instability could hurt their careers and uncompetitive leaders back down in the race. I also find that land expropriation by local governments becomes the main extractive mechanism which instigates social grievance in contemporary China. These findings demonstrate the important subnational variation of civil resistance and how it is shaped by competitive local politics in authoritarian regimes.

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