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“Fragmented Authoritarianism 2.0”: Political Pluralization in the Chinese Policy Process*

  • Andrew Mertha


Traditional analyses of political liberalization in China focus on elections or other facets of democratization. But they cannot account for the fact that although China remains authoritarian, it is nevertheless responsive to the increasingly diverse demands of Chinese society. I argue that the rules of the policy-making process are still captured by the fragmented authoritarianism framework, but that the process has become increasingly pluralized: barriers to entry have been lowered, at least for certain actors (hitherto peripheral officials, non-governmental organizations and the media) identified here as “policy entrepreneurs.” With policy change as the variable of interest, I compare three cases of hydropower policy outcomes. I argue that policy entrepreneurs' ability to frame the issue effectively explains variation in hydropower policy outcomes. I then extend these findings to an unlikely policy area, international trade, specifically, the 2001–06 Sino-EU trade talks over child-resistant lighter safety regulations.

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1 Lieberthal, Kenneth and Oksenberg, Michel, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

2 Kingdon, John W., Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 122–23.

3 Yang, Dali, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); and Zhongyang zhengfu zuzhi jigou (Central Government Organizations) (Beijing: Gaige chubanshe, 1998).

4 Lynch, Daniel C., After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and “Thought Work” in Reformed China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

5 Michael Büsgen, “NGOs and the search for Chinese civil society: environmental non-governmental organizations in the Nujiang Campaign,” Master's thesis, Institute for Social Studies, Graduate School of Development Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, 2005, pp. 2–3.

6 Noakes, John A. and Johnson, Hank, “Frames of protest: a road map to a perspective,” in Johnson, and Noakes, (eds.), Frames of Protest: Social Movements and the Framing Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), p. 8.

7 Ibid. See also Gamson, William A., “Political discourse and collective action,” International Journal of Social Movements, Conflict, and Change, No. 1 (1988), pp. 219–44.

8 Kriesi, Hanspeter and Wistler, Dominique, “The impact of social movements on political institutions: a comparison of the introduction of direct legislation in Switzerland and the United States,” in Giugni, Marco, McAdam, Doug and Tilly, Charles (eds.), How Social Movements Matter (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pp. 4265; Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Perry, Elizabeth J., Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).

9 Schattschneider, E.E., The Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960).

10 Noakes, John A., “Official frames in social movement theory: the FBI, HUAC, and the communist threat in Hollywood,” in Johnson, and Noakes, , Frames of Protest, pp. 89111.

11 Teiwes, Frederick C. and Sun, Warren, The End of the Maoist Era: Chinese Politics During the Twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972-1976 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007).

12 Palmer, David A., Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

13 See, inter alia, Jiping, Zuo and Benford, Robert D., “Mobilization processes and the 1989 Chinese democracy movement,” Sociological Quarterly, No. 36 (1995), pp. 131–56.

14 Gilley, Bruce, China's Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

15 Manion, Melanie F., “The electoral connection in the Chinese countryside,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (1996), pp. 736–48; and Jennings, M. Kent, “Political pluralization in the Chinese countryside,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 2 (1997), pp. 361–72.

16 Kahn, Joseph, “Pace and scope of protest in China accelerated in ’05,” The New York Times, 20 January 2006.

17 Pierre F. Landry and Tong Yanqi, “Disputing the authoritarian state in China,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, 1 September 2005.

18 Yongshun, Cai, State and Laid-Off Workers in Reform China: The Silence and Collective Action of the Retrenched (London: Routledge, 2005); Lee, Ching Kwan, “From the specter of Mao to the spirit of the law: labor insurgency in China,” Theory and Society, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2002), pp. 189228; Hurst, William and O'Brien, Kevin J., “China's contentious pensioners,” The China Quarterly, No. 170 (2002), pp. 345–60; and Hurst, William, “Understanding contentious collective action by Chinese laid-off workers: the importance of regional political economy,” Studies in Comparative International Development, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2004), pp. 94120.

19 O'Brien, Kevin J. and Li, Lianjiang, Rightful Resistance in Rural China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 2.

20Xiao zhengfu da shehuide lilun yu shijian: Hainan zhengshi tizhi yu shehui tizhi gaige yanjiu (Theory and Practice of “Small Government, Big Society”: The Study of the Reform of Hainan's Governing and Social Systems) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxuan chubanshe, 1998).

21 Perry, Elizabeth J. and Selden, Mark (eds.), Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance, 2nd ed. (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2000), p. 11.

22 The 80 or so interviews for the hydropower section of the article were conducted in Beijing, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou from 2004 to 2007. The 12 interviews on the child-resistant lighter case were conducted in Wenzhou and Beijing in 2006 and 2007 (with follow-up in 2008). Interviews are indicated by code: the first two digits indicate the year, the middle letters indicate the location (Beijing is “BJ,” Kunming is “KM” and Wenzhou is “WZ”), and the last two digits indicate the overall interview sequence for a given locale (with A, B, C etc. indicating the number – if more than one – of interviews with a given source).

23 Tashi Tsering, “Policy implications of current dam projects on Drichu, the Upper Yangtze River,” (accessed 22 December 2008; Interview 06BJ02, 10 March 2006).

24 Interview 04KM07, 24 August 2004.

25 Interview 04BJ02, 2 August 2004; and Interview 05KM03C, 20 July 2005.

26 Interview 05BJ02, 4 July 2005.

27 Jie, Deng, “Environmental protection's new power is growing,” Southern Weekend (cited in Three Gorges Probe), 27 December 2005.

28 It is rumoured that a secretary to Premier Wen Jiabao has close connections to “somebody in the environmental community” and this has made it easier to get such issues on the table at the State Council (Interview 04BJ03, 3 August 2004).

29 Haidong, Cao, “Nujiang de minjian baowei zhan” (“The NGO battle over protection of the Nu River”), Jingji (Economics) May 2004.

30 Yardley, Jim, “China's Premier orders halt to a dam project threatening a lost Eden,” The New York Times, 9 April 2004.

31 Mertha, Andrew, China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), ch. 3.

32 Ibid. ch. 4.

33 Given my contention that policy entrepreneurs are a necessary condition for oppositional issue frames to emerge, the outcome in the lower left-hand cell is at odds with my above argument. That is, framing does not simply arise out of nowhere. Nevertheless, one could argue that because of the political climate in the late 1980s and early 1990s – a time when I would argue that political pluralization of the type I describe here simply did not exist – domestically and particularly internationally, oppositional issue frames against the Three Gorges Dam achieved some degree of dominance through media reports and discourse.

34 Lijphart, Arendt, “Comparative politics and the comparative method,” The American Political Science Review, No. 65 (1971), pp. 682–93.

35 Of course, this has not been without controversy, as the local government offices charged with protecting IPR have cried foul that these industry associations are moving on to their turf.

36 Interview 06WZ06, 11 December 2006.

37 Ibid.

38 Gries, Peter Hays, China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

39 Interview 07WZ04, 8 August 2007.

40 Interview 07BJ02, 13 August 2007; and Interview 06WZ06, 11 December 2006.

41 In the EU, lighters are subject to the general safety requirement of the General Product Safety Directive 2001/95/EC (GPSD). However, this Directive does not include specific criteria for lighters (or any other products). In order to assist businesses and national market surveillance authorities, the GPSD allows for the referencing of European standards in the Official Journal of the EU, thereby conferring presumption of conformity with the GPSD for those products complying with such standards. For lighters, the EN ISO 9994 standard is referenced but this standard only includes general safety specifications for lighters and does not set out CR requirements. With the adoption of EN 13869 by CEN in 2002, such CR requirements were in place but the standard was not applied by industry, nor was it enforced by the national authorities (which in the EU have the sole responsibility to undertake market surveillance).

42 Communication with EU Official, 9 December 2008.

43 Interview 07WZ04, 8 August 2007.

44, accessed 22 December 2008.

45 A 2002 study on the effectiveness of the initial 1994 US legislation reported a 60% reduction in fires, injuries and deaths caused by children under five as a result of the enforcement of CR requirements for lighters alone. An average of 100 lives had been saved in the US every year since 1995 because of the introduction of CR requirements.

46 This Decision (2006/502/EC) is temporary, valid for one year and has to be renewed annually. These temporary Decisions are still in place and the Commission has given a second mandate to CEN to revise EN 13869, with the aim of publishing its reference in the Official Journal and subsequently stopping extending the Decisions, which are not intended as a permanent measure. The revision of EN 13869 aims, amongst other things, to bring the definition of lighters covered by its scope in line with that of the Decision.

47 Communication with EU Official, 9 December 2008.

49, accessed 22 December 2008. The film is based in part on Huang Fajing's story, but there has been some artistic licence to incorporate a love story and other fictionalized events.

50 Lieberthal, Kenneth G., “Introduction: the ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ model and its limitations,” in Lieberthal, and Lampton, David M. (eds.), Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 9.

* I would like to thank Sebastian Heilmann, Lianjiang Li, William Lowry, Dorothy Solinger, Patricia Thornton and Fei-Ling Wang for comments on earlier drafts. I am also grateful to Ka Ho Matthew Wong for his first-rate research assistance. All remaining errors are mine. Earlier versions were presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, 1 September 2007 and at the International Studies Association Annual Meeting in New York City, 17 February 2009.

“Fragmented Authoritarianism 2.0”: Political Pluralization in the Chinese Policy Process*

  • Andrew Mertha


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