Performing Authoritarian Citizenship: Public Transcripts in China
by Greg Distelhorst, University of Toronto and Diana Fu, University of Toronto
How should we study citizenship in authoritarian regimes? We propose studying how citizenship is performed using the “public transcript”—communication between ordinary citizens and political authorities. The stakes of these strategic communications allow us to observe the roles citizens play to elicit assistance from authoritarian elites. We use this technique to study citizenship in contemporary China, analyzing evidence from an original database of over eight thousand appeals to local officials. These public transcripts reveal three ideal-type scripts of citizenship. First, we observe individuals performing subjecthood, positioning themselves as subalterns before benevolent rulers. We also identify an authoritarian legal citizenship that appeals to the formal legal commitments of the state. Finally, we find evidence for a socialist citizenship which appeals to the moral duties of officials to provide collective welfare. This approach eschews a classification scheme based on regime types, instead acknowledging that diverse performances of citizenship can coexist within a single state.