In This Review

Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability
Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability
By Wenfang Tang
Oxford University Press, 2016, 240 pp.

Tang offers an intriguing explanation for one of the biggest puzzles in contemporary China. There are many protests over pollution, land seizures, unpaid wages, and the like, yet surveys show high levels of public support for the central government. Some analysts think Chinese respondents are afraid to say what they really think, but Tang explores nearly two dozen of his own and other scholars’ surveys to show that respondents are not censoring themselves. The puzzle of high regime support is partly explained by nationalism and economic optimism. But Tang suggests an additional factor: Beijing encourages locally focused demonstrations and petitioning in order to keep in touch with public sentiments, and central authorities require local officials to respond to citizens’ demands. In Tang’s view, demonstrations do not signal a legitimacy crisis; instead, they help generate legitimacy, which Tang suggests they may do even more effectively than democratic elections and a stronger legal system because they put officials in direct touch with citizens. The case remains circumstantial, however.