Authoritarian Learning in China’s Civil Society Regulations: Towards a Multi-Level Framework

Bertram Lang


How do authoritarian governments learn? What kind of events and experiences can lead them to adopt more or less restrictive policies towards social actors? And, how are such lessons from others’ experiences integrated into new policies? These questions have been addressed and answered quite differently from various disciplinary perspectives, focusing either on international dynamics such as “authoritarian diffusion” or on domestic policy learning. This article seeks to integrate different perspectives on authoritarian learning by proposing a typological framework of positive and negative learning from three distinct sources: authoritarian peers, democratic countries, and subnational policy experiments. I argue that such a comprehensive framework better accounts for both the relative importance and for the interaction of different kinds of learning in national-level policy processes. To illustrate the framework’s added analytical value, I use an exemplary case study of recent legislative changes to China’s civil society policy, which have been alternatively interpreted as part of an authoritarian “wave” or as another step in incremental domestic learning processes.

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