Abstract

Well-known tools of state coercion, such as administrative punishment, imprisonment, and violence, affect far fewer than 1% of Chinese journalists and lawyers. What, then, keeps the other 99% in line? Building on work detailing control strategies in illiberal states, the authors suggest that the answer is more complicated than the usual story of heavy-handed repression. Instead, deep-rooted uncertainty about the boundaries of permissible political action magnifies the effect of each crackdown. Unsure of the limits of state tolerance, lawyers and journalists frequently self-censor, effectively controlling themselves. But self-censorship does not always mean total retreat from political concerns. Rather, didactic stories about transgression help the politically inclined map the gray zone between (relatively) safe and unacceptably risky choices. For all but the most optimistic risk takers, these stories— which we call control parables—harden limits on activism by illustrating a set of prescriptions designed to prevent future clashes with authority. The rules for daily behavior, in short, are not handed down from the pinnacle of the state but jointly written (and rewritten) by Chinese public professionals and their government overseers.

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