Mass Misleading of Leaders Under Authoritarianism: Implications for Understanding and Surveying the Public in China

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Conveners: SIAS, China Centre, Oriental Studies

Speaker: Prof. Mayling Birney (The London School of Economics and Political Science)

Is the public strategic in hiding their true political beliefs and activities under authoritarianism?  If so, does this tendency effectively mislead those who want to better understand the public, such as leaders or researchers? We use survey experiments to ascertain the reliability of responses to politically sensitive questions, and then we apply a new technique to estimate the sincerity or insincerity of each individual’s responses.  We find that the patterns of misrepresentation are indeed politically strategic, as opposed to habitual, socially desirable, or cultural.  Notably, patterns of misrepresentation accord with differences in political vulnerability, and thus vary across types of persons and topics.  We show that such patterns of misrepresentation can sometimes (though certainly not always) lead to incorrect inferences by researchers—and thus presumably by other outsiders as well.

Mayling Birney, Assistant Professor, Department of International Development, LSE. Mayling Birney is a comparative political economist with a special expertise in China.  Her research focuses on how authoritarian systems work and transform, with an eye to improving governance, rule of law, and justice.  Prior to arriving at LSE, Dr Birney was a fellow and lecturer at Princeton University; a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC; and a Legislative Aide in the United States Senate. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Yale University, an MSc in Economics from LSE, and a BA in Government from Harvard University.