Public largesse won't help repressive regimes gain popular support

January 22, 2021
Welfare and other programs don't make citizens love iron-fisted regimes any more. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Welfare and other programs don't make citizens love iron-fisted regimes any more. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Pensions and other social safety nets are unlikely to improve citizens’ attitudes toward historically violent regimes, recent research found, adding new empirical insights to a growing scholarly debate over whether such programs can indeed boost a government’s political support.

Scholars in recent years have presented mixed results to this effect in democracies, but few studies have focused on the impact of material benefits on the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, explained Wenhui Yang and Xiaoxiao Shen, the authors of the recent paper in Governance and doctoral candidates in political science at the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University, respectively.

Through a case study set in China, which boasts some of the largest public pensions in the world, the authors show that a 2010 rural pension plan with over 460 million beneficiaries did not have a significant impact on the participants’ support for local governments, which are the primary providers of social benefits in the country.

“We argue that the consequences of social welfare on political support may be contingent on political violence,” Yang and Shen told The Academic Times in a joint interview. “As the state attempts to provide social welfare to garner support, whether citizens’ evaluations toward the regime will improve may depend on the political violence they have been exposed to earlier on.”

The pair drew on existing literature on political repression to argue that any net gain in public support among the demographic targeted by the pension plan, most of whom had witnessed the violent Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s at a young age, would be suppressed by the history of state-inflicted political violence in China. 

In particular, the researchers drew heavily from a 2019 paper by Yuhua Wang, an associate professor of government at Harvard University, who found that state-sanctioned repression during the Cultural Revolution, a period in which up to 20 million people were killed, produced lingering distrust of the government among those who grew up during that time. 

“Citizens exposed to political violence may hold a critical view toward state intervention” in the form of social welfare, Yang and Shen said. “As a result, welfare state intervention may have a backsliding effect on individuals’ political support when individuals experienced high intensity of state-sponsored violence before.”

Their paper also contributes rare empirical findings to the discourse around the payoff from implementing such programs, as it is one of the first to try to determine the causal effects of social programs on public political support, the authors said.

In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, China set out to expand social welfare benefits for its citizens to “secure the loyalty of beneficiaries,” Yang and Shen wrote. In 2009, the Chinese government launched the New Rural Pension Program, which sought to bridge the urban-rural gap in social benefits in the country.

As the first of its kind to target rural Chinese citizens, the NRPP provides a basic pension benefit of CNY 55 yuan ($8.51) to rural residents over the age of 60, representing over 30% of rural household income per capita for that demographic. All benefits are subsidized by the local governments.

The program grew to about 460 million beneficiaries across all 2,853 rural counties in China by the end of 2012, according to the paper.

Yang and Shen relied on the Chinese Family Panel Studies, a national general social survey by Peking University, while isolating responses from the rural beneficiaries of the NRPP to measure their attitudes toward local officials and whether the pension actually improved their well-being.

The CFPS survey involves in-person interviews via a computer-assisted interviewing program provided by the University of Michigan, the authors explained. The computerized system allows researchers to design a “fairly complex interview schedule” while allowing the management team at the Peking University to monitor the quality of the results. The survey is led by Yu Xie, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, and represents the highest-quality survey data in China.

“Preference falsification, [in which respondents] self-censor or inflate [their] genuine support level, has always been an issue in gauging public opinion in authoritarian countries,” Shen told The Academic Times. “But multiple methods have been developed to capture respondents’ genuine public opinion while protecting their anonymity at the same time.”

By honing in on CFPS responses from 2012, 2014 and 2016, Yang and Shen showed that there was a positive but statistically insignificant improvement in political attitudes among rural residents, effectively nullifying the assumption that the NRPP would boost public support for the government in a meaningful way. This was despite the authors finding that the program significantly improved measures of general well-being and consumption among pension beneficiaries during the same period.

These results track with prior research from as recently as last year that shows similar effects when gauging the impact of social benefits on public opinion of authoritarian and democratic governments. In China, for instance, one study found that the abolition of school fees did not improve trust in local governments.

However, the authors concede that it’s unclear whether their findings would continue to hold up in the long run, given the relative infancy of the NRPP.

“We spent a lot of time exploring why the results are nonsignificant,” Yang and Shen said. “In some contexts, null results provide an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the world and contribute to the theoretical debates.”

The null result, they argue, helps to illustrate authoritarian governments’ incentive to use the proverbial “carrot” rather than the “stick” to enforce compliance among citizens, due to the long-term, high-cost trade-offs from using political violence.

Scholars generally believe that while authoritarians effectively use violence to quell immediate dissent, such repression tends to leave long-lasting resentment toward the regime that could make compliance more difficult to enforce in the long run.

For example, the authors point to recent studies that found that descendants of Crimean Tatars who suffered deportation from Crimea in 1944 at the hands of the Soviet regime still harbor “hostile attitudes toward Russia” to this day.

“While authoritarian repression may effectively enforce compliance in the short run, recent studies demonstrate that state-sponsored political violence may have long-lasting negative impacts on citizens’ political attitudes,” Shen and Yang explained.

And though the null effect of some social benefits would not necessarily lead to more repressive behavior by China or other countries, the researchers said, it may incentivize an authoritarian government to invest in other social policies that are more effective at marshaling obedience.

“We think the state may reallocate its resources somewhere else to garner political support, but not necessarily want to use the ‘stick,’” Shen and Yang said. “The stick is costly and risky, but the state may want to use another type of ‘carrot’ instead of material benefits.”

The authors cautioned that their results may not be generalized to other settings outside countries that have experienced similar kinds of violent actions by the state. They noted that future research in this line of study should examine the impacts of different types of social welfare, given the mixed results of programs seen elsewhere.

The paper, titled “Can social welfare buy mass loyalty?” was published Nov. 30, 2020 in Governance. It was authored by Wenhui Yang, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Texas at Austin, and Xiaoxiao Shen, a doctoral candidate in political science at Princeton University.

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