This project investigates the sources of stability and conflict in authoritarian regimes, especially regimes that have a unitary national government, apply threats and repression to their own officials, and lack an exit option for bureaucrats to move into careers in a separate private sector. It also seeks to develop theories about political movements in which bureaucrats are viewed as active participants in political processes that can rapidly undermine a government. The research focuses on China in the late 1960s. Early in that decade China had a well-organized and highly repressive system of social and political control. Yet a nationwide rebellion from 1966 to 1968 led to the collapse of regional and local governments and a state of near civil war that ended in a harsh military dictatorship. How and why did such a powerful civilian dictatorship collapse in such short order? This was one of the largest rebellions of the 20th century, and led to the deaths of well over one million people.

Past studies, which are consistent with prevailing social science theories about political protest and social movements, explain these events a popular response to a rare political opportunity created by Maoist officials in the top party leadership. In this view, calls to criticize civilian officials for alleged lack of loyalty to ?Mao Thought? inadvertently unleashed waves of protest over other issues. This explanation views these events as a popular rebellion against the party-state, driven by underlying grievances that pitted different social groups against one another. The project aims to test this explanation alongside an alternative one?the rapid collapse of the civilian state was due to an insurgency within the organized hierarchy of the state, as government staff rebelled against their own superiors.

The project exploits material from local histories published in China since the late 1980s. Relevant pages covering events from 1966 to 1969 in the histories of more than 2,200 Chinese counties and cities have been photocopied over the past 15 years. The project will fund the full coding of the event data contained in these materials, the collection of supplementary data about the localities, and the creation of a national-level dataset that will support the testing of alternative ?mass insurgency? and ?bureaucratic insurgency? explanations. The dataset will permit clear descriptions of nationwide patterns of political conflict. Competing explanations will be tested with a combination of event count and event history models.

Broader Impacts

The broader impact of the project include a renewed attention by analysts of political conflict to previously overlooked vulnerabilities of well-organized dictatorial regimes. The theories and methods developed in the project are potentially applicable to other authoritarian states. Several Ph.D. students will be trained through participation in the research. The completed dataset and full documentation will be archived and made publicly available. This will contribute to efforts by analysts to understand the dynamics of this type of authoritarian regime, and their sources of instability and conflict.

Project Report

This project recorded material from 2,237 county and city histories ("annals") published in the Chinese language from the mid-1980s through 2009 into a computer database that recorded key events related to the rebellion and suppression campaign of 1966-71 known as the "Cultural Revolution" in Mao's China. The resulting dataset includes extensive information about all but 10 rural counties in China at that time, and contains information about more than 14,200 events, including armed battles, attacks on government agenies, and various government suppression campaigns. The materials explicitly report more than 260,000 deaths due either to the actions of insurgents or of authorities, and 12.9 million victims of political persecution. Statistical methods that correct for underreporting derive fairly confident estimates that approximately 1.1 million people died as a result of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and around 24 million people suffered various forms of political persecution short of death. Preliminary analysis of the data from the project has shown that more than three fourths of the deaths during this period were caused by the actions of the Chinese authorities, and only one fourth by the actions of rebel students and workers. Moreover, more than 90 percent of those victimized politically suffered at the hands of the authorities. The damage due to the suppression campaigns that took place after the end of the mass rebellion of 1966-68 was far worse than the damage done by the rebellion itself. The total death toll places the latter period described by these materials on a par with the persecutions in the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s, and among the most costly examples of political extremism in the 20th century. The data will be publicly available to researchers within 12 months after the first publication from the project, and will be of wide interest to students of political violence, rebellion, and the history of contemporary China.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Patricia White
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Stanford University
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