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Garnering sympathy: moral appeals and land bargaining under autocracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2021

Wanlin Lin*
Faculty of Social Science, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Corresponding author. Email:


Local governments in autocracies typically undercompensate residents for their land and take it through eminent domain, while residents lack effective formal channels for bargaining with them. I find that some residents nonetheless can defend against such predation through extralegal land bargaining. By sending resistance signals to challenge the legitimacy of local governments, publicize their grievances, and garner public sympathy, such residents embarrass governments, make it likely higher-level governments will punish local governments, and spur concessions. Such signals, however, are often costly or unavailable, so only resistant entrepreneurs can send them. I illustrate the argument by treating ‘nail-house resistance’ in China as a resistance signal: by refusing to vacate their houses, engaging in violence or self-burning, or turning to the media, some residents stop land takings or gain compensation. The findings enrich our understanding of the political and moral economy of land bargaining and institutional change in a transitional autocracy.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Millennium Economics Ltd.

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