Researching Discontent: Here’s Why a Regime May Need—and Secretly Want—Protests

By Sabine Bergmann

“Do you really want to have secret informants in every single village?”

It’s a question Peter L. Lorentzen has pondered quite a bit. After all, he’s an expert in uncovering discontent among the masses within authoritarian regimes. Secret informants, he asserts, are expensive and not always accurate. So the world’s dictators are likely using other tactics.

As an assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s political science department, Lorentzen has spent years trying to get into the heads of these dictators. He does this by building game-theory models that simulate how a regime reacts to critical press and protest, and whether it achieves stability. Lorentzen has used his models to explain tactics in regimes from Suharto’s Indonesia to Mubarak’s Egypt, but he mostly focuses on China. His latest research unveils surprisingly counterintuitive methods used by despots to keep regimes stable.

Take, for instance, allowing protests. In 2013, Lorentzen published a paper titled Regularizing Rioting, in which his model showed that stable regimes don’t just allow protests, but actually encourage them, at least on a local scale. He argues that such protests can serve as canaries in the coal mine, revealing the risk of an all-out revolution. “People will complain, but if they’re ready to go out and mobilize,” Lorentzen says, that’s a much better indicator that they would “join a revolt if something nationwide happened.”

In the Rioting paper, Lorentzen speculates that the Chinese Communist Party has used this very tactic to identify who may be angry enough to join a larger revolt—and then to pay them off before they do. This happened in 2000, when several thousand protesters who rallied at a single alloy factory in Liaoyang received their back pay and pensions, and their former plant manager was sentenced to 13 years in jail. This kind of payoff, Lorentzen writes, is typical. He cites work by Hong Kong researcher Yongshun Cai, who revealed the prevalence of protester compensation in China by cataloguing 266 protests and their outcomes. These payoffs, Lorentzen concludes, constitute a national approach to protests.

Au­thor­it­ari­an re­gimes don’t in­ten­tion­ally set fires, but tol­er­at­ing small protests and pay­ing off par­ti­cipants can “burn off” a lot of dis­con­tent. Then re­volu­tion­ar­ies look­ing to fire up re­volt have a lot less kind­ling to work with.

The same principle is behind what foresters call “controlled burns”—setting small, intentional fires to burn up flammable undergrowth that would otherwise transform natural fires into infernos. In China, discontented citizens are the fuel, Lorentzen says. Authoritarian regimes don’t intentionally set fires, but tolerating small protests and paying off participants can “burn off” a lot of discontent. Then revolutionaries looking to fire up revolt have a lot less kindling to work with. If protesting villagers have been paid off, Lorentzen suggests, “their problem has sort of been dealt with, so they aren’t so upset that they’re going to march on the capital.” If the government had simply quelled the protest, Lorentzen says, the villagers’ discontent would grow and spur them to challenge the regime in a big way. Not surprisingly, those who challenge the regime can face prison.

Permitting investigative journalism is another type of controlled burn. In 2014, Lorentzen wrote China’s Strategic Censorship, in which his new game-theory model predicts that regimes maintain stability by allowing some watchdog reporting. By choosing to allow some negative reports but not others, a regime can cloud the public’s perception of discontent, preventing widespread organization and revolt.

What looks like instability, in other words, might just be good manipulation. As Lorentzen writes in Rioting, “an authoritarian government could maintain political stability not despite regular protests, but in part because of them.” In the case of China, that stability has led to the country’s rapid growth as a world power.

In fact, regimes that vigorously squash protest and stifle watchdog journalism, such as the notoriously repressive North Korea, may be crippling themselves. “They’re doing a terrible job of actually running their country,” Lorentzen says. Such regimes, he adds, are “making themselves more vulnerable by being more completely repressive” and “missing a chance” at greater stability.

“Maybe they’ll, for better or for worse, learn from China,” he says.

—Sabine Bergmann

From the Spring 2015 Dropouts and Drop-ins issue of California.
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