We create a collective resistance game in which elites control the distribution of resources if the masses are compliant. However, if the masses unanimously protest elite allocations, they can capture a greater share of resources for themselves. We study how Chinese villagers, randomly assigned to the role of elites and masses, play this game in repeated interactions under varying information conditions. We find significant variation in the extent to which participants gave weight in their decisions to (1) the amount of the elite allocation and (2) their beliefs about the likely choices of fellow group members. Many individuals made their decisions based primarily on the size of the elite allocation, choosing to protest if the elite offer fell below some threshold level. Only a small proportion of the respondents were attuned consistently to the behavioral intentions of fellow group members in deciding whether to protest the elite allocation. This heterogeneity of preferences among participants has significant implications for their prospects of achieving and sustaining collective action. Knowledge of the amount of resources controlled by elites at the start of the game affected mass calculations of the fairness of distributions and increased the frequency of mass protests. However, the elites exploited the decision rule of many mass members by buying off those individuals with the lowest thresholds, thus preempting or dissolving collective action. This research sheds light on elite–mass interactions under authoritarianism, and in particular on contentious politics in contemporary China.
Political Behavior – Springer Journals
Published: May 20, 2016
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