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Concealing Corruption: How Chinese Officials Distort Upward Reporting of Online Grievances


A prerequisite for the durability of authoritarian regimes as well as their effective governance is the regime’s ability to gather reliable information about the actions of lower-tier officials. Allowing public participation in the form of online complaints is one approach authoritarian regimes have taken to improve monitoring of lower-tier officials. In this paper, we gain rare access to internal communications between a monitoring agency and upper-level officials in China. We show that citizen grievances posted publicly online that contain complaints of corruption are systematically concealed from upper-level authorities when they implicate lower-tier officials or associates connected to lower-tier officials through patronage ties. Information manipulation occurs primarily through omission of wrongdoing rather than censorship or falsification, suggesting that even in the digital age, in a highly determined and capable regime where reports of corruption are actively and publicly voiced, monitoring the behavior of regime agents remains a challenge.

Corresponding author
Jennifer Pan, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Building 120, Room 110 450 Serra Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2050 (
Kaiping Chen, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Communication, Building 120, Room 110450 Serra Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2050
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Our thanks to Jianghong An, Rita Lu, Yanchen Song, Feiya Suo, Zhiheng Xu for excellent research assistance; to Steven Balla, Peter Lorentzen, Guillermo Rosas, Lily Tsai, the SMAPP Global meeting, and Bay Area China Social Science Workshop participants for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions; and to the Stanford Asia-Pacific Scholars Fund, Stanford China Fund, and Stanford IRiSS Faculty Fellows Program for research support.

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