Meicen Sun - Internet Control as A Winning Strategy: How the Duality of Information Consolidates Autocratic Rule in the Digital Age

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Encina Hall West, room 400

This paper advances a new theory on how the Internet as a digital technology helps consolidate autocratic rule. Exploiting a major Internet control shock in China in 2014, this paper finds that Chinese data-intensive firms have gained from Internet control a 10% increase in revenue over other Chinese firms, and about 1-2% over their U.S. competitors. Meanwhile, the same Internet control has incurred an up to 25% reduction in research quality for Chinese scholars conditional on the knowledge-intensity of their discipline. This occurred specifically via a reduction in the access to cutting-edge knowledge from the outside world. These findings suggest that while politically motivated information flow restrictions do take a toll on the country’s long-term capacity for innovation, they lend a short-term benefit to its data-intensive sectors. Conventional wisdom on the inherent limit to information control by autocracies overlooks this crucial protectionist benefit that aids in autocratic power consolidation in the digital age.


Meicen Sun is a postdoctoral scholar with the Program on Democracy and the Internet at Stanford University. Starting fall 2023, she will be an assistant professor of information policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Information Sciences. Her research examines the political economy of information and the effect of information policy on the future of innovation and state power. Her writings have appeared in academic and policy outlets including Foreign Policy Analysis, Harvard Business Review, World Economic Forum, the Asian Development Bank Institute, and The Diplomat among others. She had previously conducted research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and at the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa. Bilingual in English and Chinese, she has also written stories, plays, and music and staged many of her works -- in both languages -- in China, Singapore and the U.S. Sun has served as a Fellow on the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on China and as a Research Affiliate with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. She holds an A.B. with Honors from Princeton University, an A.M. with a Certificate in Law from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.