Under Review

The Political Impact of Migration in Autocracies: Evidence from China

with Jiannan Zhao

How does migration affect political efficacy and participation in autocracies? Previous studies have examined the socioeconomic impact of migration; here we examine the political impact. We argue that, through frequent interactions with the government in their host cities, migrants gain a better understanding of the government than non-migrants, which leads to stronger political efficacy. When migrants return to their home communities, they are motivated by stronger political efficacy to participate more in local politics than non-migrants. We test this argument in rural China, leveraging China’s large-scale migration and return. Using four nationally representative surveys spanning from 2006 to 2014, we find that returning migrants are more confident in their ability to understand politics and influence political outcomes. However, returning migrants do not participate more in local politics. We provide suggestive evidence that a shift in returning migrants’ participating strategies may explain their higher political efficacy but lower political participation.


Working Papers

Democratic Thresholds, “Vague” Political Threats and State Repression

with Christian Davenport and Megan Ryan

Politicians, academics, activists and ordinary people from around the world generally believe that democracy reduces state repression. Prior research has uniformly supported this position but with the caveat that the most accurate description of the influence approximates what is best described as a “threshold” effect – here it is only at the highest levels of democracy that repressive behavior is reduced. Despite the pervasiveness of the belief in what is called the “Domestic Democratic Peace” and the quality of empirical support for the threshold argument there are two limitations with this work that compels revisitation. First, it is unclear if the pacifying influence of democracy is undermined by the presence of “vague” political threats (i.e., those where potential behavioral challenges are possible but not currently underway). And, second, it is unclear if the influence of democracy varies depending upon the particular form of repression that one is considering. Within our research, we explore both issues in an examination of 157 countries from 1976 to 2015. Results disclose that vague political threats significantly weaken the Domestic Democratic Peace. Additionally, we find that the pacifying effect of democracy varies across different forms of repressive action.

Networking Ordinary People in Autocracies: How Do Initiators and Potential Participants Mobilize One Another?


How do ordinary people take collective action in autocracies? Existing research emphasizes unusual circumstances, such as rising prices or police violence, that drive ordinary people to collective action, and examines external forces like political entrepreneurs that intervene in collective action by ordinary people. I focus on the internal dynamics amongst ordinary people that enable collective action and condition external influences. I argue that, in autocracies, ordinary people can compartmentalize collective action, with a few choosing to initiate and the other choosing to participate in collective action. Taking on different roles, ordinary people encourage one another to overcome barriers to and engage in collective action. This model of collective action, which I call “networked mobilization,” decreases the risk of state repression and increases the participation of ordinary people. I formalize this model of networked mobilization and characterize the conditions under which ordinary people can endogenously incentivize themselves to coordinate collective action in a repressive and divided environment. I show that networked mobilization increases participation in collective action, as it bridges the division between ordinary people, rallies ordinary people behind the collective initiative, and facilitates the diffusion of collective action.

Whack-a-mole? The Impact and Implications of Targeting Organizers on Strikes in Mainland China


What is the impact of government crackdowns targeting initiators of collective action in autocracies? What does the impact of government crackdowns reveal about the influence of initiators on collective action? Based on a model of collective action in autocracies, I argue that government crackdowns can reduce the size and frequency of collective action. However, the impact will vary from place to place given how collective action spreads in autocracies. To test the argument, I construct a province-year panel data set on strikes in mainland China between 2011 and 2019 and compile seven incidents of crackdown on worker organizers by the Chinese government during this period. Employing a difference-in-differences design, I find that targeting worker organizers significantly reduced the frequency and size of strikes both in the province where organizers were targeted and in the province where targeted organizers came from. However, the negative impact was weaker and lasted for a shorter period of time in organizers’ place of origin. The findings reveal the limitations of the government’s targeted crackdown and suggest the spread of strikes beyond industrial hubs of China. The study sheds light on how mixed findings in the literature of repression-dissent nexus can be reconciled.

Out of Thin Air: Control Practice and Strike Conditions at Factories in China


This paper studies what enables workers to resist employers’ control and organize strikes under employers’ watch at factories in China. I worked first as an assembly line worker and then as a human resource assistant at factories in an industrial province of China, Guangdong, from May to November 2019. Through this ethnographic study, I found that workers were subject to severe control by employers at factories. However, employers’ control measures contradicted each other. The tension between control measures paradoxically created spaces in which workers nursed similar grievances. This generated conditions that connected workers against employers at critical moments.

Hollowed Out: A Reversal in the Growth of Organizer-Worker Networks in China


Ordinary people can take on different roles and coordinate collective action in autocracies. Ordinary people initiating collective action can network other ordinary people to participate in collective action by bridging the division between ordinary people and rallying them behind the collective initiative. Those who took the initiative or participated can also facilitate the diffusion of collective action in autocracies. I argue that these predictions cannot be reduced to or rephrased by existing theories on how social networks influence collective action. To test these predictions, I collect cases of strikes in Guangdong, China, and construct a data set of annual networks of workers from 2011 to 2018. These networks measure coordination between worker organizers and fellow workers in strikes. Using network analysis, I find that organizers – especially those with more experience in engaging workers – encouraged more workers to go on strikes, inspired some workers to become organizers, and expanded networks of workers into more cities in Guangdong. However, the growth of participation in strikes and networks of workers was reversed after a government crackdown on organizers in 2015.

Work in Progress

In Flux: How Does Worker Migration Influence Strikes in the Hinterland of China?

The Influence of Collective Action on Public Policy in Autocracies: Evidence
from China

Making Sense of Trauma: The Cognitive Impact of Pre-1979 Political Campaigns in China