PhD candidate Greg Distelhorst explores accountability in China

When you think of activism in non-democratic societies like China, what usually springs to mind are street protests, secret police and detentions. Open information laws, local governance and media exposés seldom figure in the picture. Considering research by political science doctoral candidate Greg Distelhorst, they probably should.

Distelhorst was attempting to study labor law enforcement in China – difficult enough to do in democratic societies – and was stymied in his efforts to gather data. He turned to an unlikely tool: China's Open Government Information Ordinance. The law enables people to request information from government agencies, similar to the US Freedom of Information Act. As he observed how citizens used the law, he noticed a pattern of behavior that was missing from the research literature. People persisted in trying to use the law even though they were routinely rebuffed by the courts. They often succeeded in their struggles with government officials, however, despite the failure of the legal system to help them.

Distelhorst had uncovered an informal mechanism of government accountability. Chinese officials are not elected, but as it turns out they can be strongly affected by public perception. Successful encounters with officials typically begin with a citizen pursuing transparency, usually involving prosaic matters like county budgets. When the initial effort fails, the citizen turns to the media. Faced with media accounts of a government official using secrecy to hide routine business, the official relents.  Citizens engage individually with officials, but the potential for these encounters to be witnessed collectively can discipline those officials.

For example, one group of displaced Chinese homeowners seeking higher compensation filed dozens of lawsuits against local agencies in an effort to draw media attention. They lost every lawsuit they filed, but they believed that the negative publicity surrounding the lawsuits pressured government agencies anyway.  The media coverage ultimately solved their problem, said Distelhorst. "The key to embarrassing local officials was to publicize a story about them failing to uphold their legal duties."

What makes this dynamic possible is lower-level functionaries' surprising concern for public opinion. Distelhorst surveyed 90 local officials and found that they perceived negative media reports to be highly threatening to their careers, worse than receiving negative work evaluations or even harming the efficiency of their bureaus.

By framing their interactions with the government in terms of law and narratives of good governance, citizens can discipline officials and make them more accountable, said Distelhorst. "I hope this leads researchers towards more nuanced ideas of state-society relations in non-democracies," he said.

Distelhorst's path to studying state-society relations in China began with the linguistic component of his undergraduate studies in cognitive science. He studied Chinese in China, then returned to teach English. Later he landed a job in Beijing as a research assistant to journalist Philip Pan, who worked for the Washington Post at the time. Distelhorst helped Pan research his highly regarded book on contemporary Chinese politics, Out Of Mao's Shadow.

When Distelhorst considered postgraduate studies in political science, Pan recommended Prof. Ed Steinfeld, who had taught Pan as a teaching assistant at Harvard. Steinfeld is now Distelhorst's thesis advisor. He also worked with department head Prof. Rick Locke to study corporate social responsibility and private efforts to regulate labor in global supply chains. As part of that research he conducted interviews at 13 electronics factories in China. "I was really interested in labor issues and labor law enforcement, especially because China basically builds everything in the world," said Distelhorst.

That was where one closed door -- inaccessible data -- opened another: his thesis, titled Non-democratic accountability? Evidence from transparency reform in the People's Republic of China.

In the fall, Distelhorst will tackle another supply chain project with Prof. Locke.  He is also conducting a field experiment to determine whether legally knowledgeable citizens receive more responsive service from local officials. This research is supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Research Improvement Grant. He is working on several papers, including A Public Right to Information in China? Transparency Reform, Judicial Review, and Accountability.

Long-term, Distelhorst plans to teach and conduct research at a university. He'd also like to consult for nongovernmental organizations that are working to increase government accountability and transparency, he said.

By: Eric Smalley

Learn more about Greg Distelhorst.

Greg Distelhorst (L) and Prof. Ed Steinfeld at the finish line of the Boston Marathon 4/18/2011