When you think of activism in non-democratic societies such as 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 U.S. 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 such as 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.