Disguised Repression: Targeting Opponents with Non-Political Crimes to Undermine Dissent
Why do authoritarian regimes charge political opponents with non-political crimes when they can levy charges directly related to opponents’ political activism? We argue that doing so disguises political repression and undermines the moral authority of opponents, minimizing backlash and mobilization. To test this argument, we conduct a case study of the arrests of vocal government critics in China in 2013. Analyzing millions of Weibo posts made before and after the crackdown shows that individuals with larger online followings are more likely to be charged with non-political crimes, and those charged with non-political crimes are less likely to receive public sympathy and support. We then conduct an experiment, which shows that disguised repression decreases perceptions of dissidents’ morality, decreases people’s willingness to engage in dissent, and increases support for repression. These results challenge the assumption of public opposition to repression, showing instead why the public may support repression.