In a new study, researchers found that citizen complaints of lower management wrongdoing in one Chinese city were routinely concealed from senior authorities.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, he launched the most extensive anti-corruption drive since Maoist rule in China. For many in the country, the campaign was considered a success: It put government authorities under intense scrutiny and curbed corruption.
At the end of the day, there is still a person writing a report.
But, as researchers discovered, there are some shortcomings in how information about graft was gathered from the public.
The study comes from an analysis the researchers conducted of a leaked email archive that came from a city in central China. Although the archive has received significant press coverage and has remained publicly available, it has not been systematically analyzed, scholars note.
A view inside the government
In their investigation of the email archive, the researchers found it contained not just internal communications among lower-tier officials of the city but messages they sent to senior authorities as well. Attached to their messages were more than 600 “Online Sentiment Monitoring Reports” that listed complaints local citizens submitted to their local government over social media.
“It was fascinating because it provided an inside look into how the Chinese government monitors social media and what types of things they pay attention to,” Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor of communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, says about the glimpse into how a local government operated.
When combing through 2,768 emails from 2012-14, Pan made a startling discovery. She found that the reports the city officials sent to central management did not include all of the public grievances she saw detailed in the department’s internal communications.
“Not only do we know what they are monitoring but we also get a sense of how they are hiding information,” says Pan about her discovery. Of the 28 percent of complaints related to government wrongdoing, city officials only reported 31 percent of these upward.
The researchers found that when citizens accused city officials of misconduct—such as embezzlement, graft, and violence—officials were less likely to report it upward than other governance issues, such as pollution or education policy.
The researchers explored various reasons that might explain why this information was held back. Did lower-tier officials think some complaints were unreliable? Were some complaints only hearsay? Did they not deem the complaints important enough issue for superiors to deal with? Or were there political incentives at play?
After cross-checking these different scenarios with the email archive and the public grievances posted online, the researchers found that complaints implicating a city official or a person with political connections to city officials were less likely to be reported.
Officials were 11 percent less likely to report complaints about counties with workplace and birthplace ties to city politburo members (the most powerful group of officials in the city, controlling policy, judicial, and bureaucratic functions of government) upward. By comparison, officials were 51 percent more likely to report content with the most positive sentiment upward.
“In this era when machine learning and computational methods are getting better and better at mining large-scale data, there is still someone writing a report to summarize findings, and that’s where there is an opportunity for bias, politics, and manipulation,” Pan says about the shortcomings she identified in one anti-corruption effort.
In other words, at the end of the day, there is still a person writing a report.
“Even though these complaints were submitted by the public and in plain sight, there are many ways to justify why certain complaints were not reported. There is subjectivity because someone is processing this data, that is where manipulation comes in,” Pan says about the partial concealment at play.
While China has built many channels to gather citizen complaints, Pan’s research shows that there remain shortcomings in how an authoritarian regime gathers information from its public.
“What I found is contrary to an emerging view that accountability can be found in authoritarian countries,” Pan says, noting that public participation is insufficient for accountability in non-democracies. Monitoring the behavior of regime agents will remain a challenge.
Pan’s research illuminates another concern: To what extent can citizens in an authoritarian regime hold non-elected, government officials accountable?
“I think there’s been optimism that even if you don’t elect your officials, you can still somehow get the things that you want from the government,” Pan says. “What I am showing is that there are significant limitations. We can’t assume that because people are allowed to voice their grievances and report on corrupt officials to the government, that this information will make its way to the people who can sanction corrupt officials.”