Image Credit: Thomas Carothers

Image Credit: Thomas Carothers


Book Project

Cleaning House with an Iron Fist: Authoritarian Anti-Corruption in East Asia and Beyond

         As evidenced by the wave of large-scale citizen protests roiling politics in every region of the world, government corruption is posing stark challenges to numerous democratic and authoritarian governments.[i] Studies of anti-corruption reforms have focused primarily on those carried out by democratic governments. Scholars generally assume that authoritarian regimes are unwilling or unable to bring corruption under control.[ii] The conventional wisdom behind this assumption goes something like this: Autocrats are unlikely to be motivated to carry out anti-corruption reforms because they often rely on distributing spoils and patronage to stay in power, benefit personally from corruption, and can use coercive means to suppress public criticism and unrest.[iii] Any putative anti-corruption efforts, such as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s (2012–) high-profile campaign, are likely a cover for the autocrat purging rivals and consolidating power. Even if they did want cleaner government, autocrats would have to face the daunting prospect of giving up substantial power and control to get there. This is because corruption control is achieved, in the consensus view, through the power of democratic institutions: the rule of law, checks and balances, judicial independence, transparency, elections, oversight via a free media and civil society organizations, etc.[iv] Even taking small steps toward this democratic approach is usually too threatening for authoritarian regimes.

Cleaning House with an Iron Fist will challenge this conventional wisdom. It will argue that authoritarian anti-corruption success is too common to be considered exceptional and often too impactful to be written off as a political charade. My research shows how there have been dozens of episodes of intense anti-corruption activity by authoritarian regimes since 1945, including at least nine cases in which corruption was meaningfully reduced, yielding political and economic benefits. Many, though not all, of these successes have been by dictatorial governments in East Asia. In Taiwan, for example, the Nationalist government’s Kuomintang Reconstruction (1950–52) brought previously rampant corruption under control as it reformed the beleaguered ruling party, helping lay a new foundation for regime stability and growth. The bulk of this book will focus on analyzing anti-corruption campaigns of varying levels of success under authoritarian governments in China, South Korea, and Taiwan, including Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign.

Not only is authoritarian anti-corruption success more common than widely thought, it also defies the consensus view about how corruption control is achieved. Authoritarian governments do not curb corruption by moving in the direction of greater democracy, for example by adopting or strengthening quasi-democratic institutions like semi-competitive elections. Even while most “fully authoritarian” regimes are highly corrupt—dictatorships in Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe jump to mind—a subset of such regimes have curbed corruption more successfully than most hybrid regimes, which are also called semi-democratic or competitive authoritarian. In South Korea, President Park Chung-hee’s anti-corruption efforts were much more successful under the dictatorial Fourth Republic (1972–79) than the competitive authoritarian Third Republic (1961–72). More recently, corruption has been reduced in Rwanda under President Paul Kagame’s fully authoritarian regime.

The discrepancy between common assumptions about corruption under authoritarianism and these empirical realities raises important questions: Why do some authoritarian regimes try to curb corruption, what determines their success or failure, and what are the political consequences of authoritarian anti-corruption outcomes? My book addresses these questions and proposes a new theory of the role of corruption control in authoritarian politics.

Many autocrats can accept the negatives of widespread corruption—less efficiency and effectiveness in governance, slower economic growth, and public discontent—as long as the problems do not rise to the level of threatening the regime. In such contexts, anti-corruption campaigns are in fact largely just political theater. But autocrats pursuing rapid economic modernization, the revolutionary construction of state socialism, or other national projects requiring state power have strong reasons to care that corruption does not get out of hand. My research finds that autocrats are often motivated to undertake anti-corruption in a meaningful way if corruption is an obstacle to their ambitious national projects. Of course, autocrats often do use their anti-corruption campaigns also to purge rivals.

Even if autocrats are motivated to make real anti-corruption progress, however, their reform measures do not always succeed. I argue that authoritarian anti-corruption reforms are most likely to be successful when unconstrained and wide-ranging authority in the top leadership is paired with an organized and capable state below. A strong leader–strong state combination is effective, I argue, not in spite of but because of the decidedly authoritarian approach it permits. In contrast to the decentralized, rule-bound, transparent, and bottom-up ways democratic institutions are employed to curb corruption, the authoritarian approach is centralized, institution-breaking as well as institution-making, image-controlled and propagandized, and dependent on the political will of top leaders. Overall, my argument challenges views that hold democratic or quasi-democratic institutions as necessary for every type of political governance success and builds on literature that emphasizes the role of state capacity in determining governance outcomes.

These arguments are supported by evidence from anti-corruption campaigns in authoritarian China, South Korea, and Taiwan between 1945 and the present, as mentioned above, as well as to a lesser extent cases in 12 other authoritarian states. Anti-corruption efforts in these three countries constitute a useful set of cases because their outcomes vary greatly, despite the regimes having many similar characteristics, including cultural backgrounds, developmentalist leaderships, challenging security environments, high state capacity, and other common regional features. The People’s Republic of China has a decidedly mixed record on corruption control, with campaigns at different times having had more or less success. By contrast, the authoritarian KMT-led regime in Taiwan was mostly successful and South Korea’s military governments were mostly unsuccessful.

Cleaning House with an Iron Fist will be a revised version of my Ph.D. dissertation, which I completed at Harvard University in May 2019 under the guidance of Elizabeth Perry (my dissertation committee chair), Steve Levitsky, Grzegorz Ekiert, and Wang Yuhua. In the process of preparing the dissertation, I conducted 16 months of in-country research in China, South Korea, and Taiwan between 2015 and 2019. I drew on Chinese and Korean-language materials from more than 20 archival collections, libraries, and government agencies in East Asia, as well archives and libraries in the United States. In addition, I conducted 70 expert and elite interviews, including of scholars with expertise on corruption and politics in China, South Korea, and Taiwan, former high-level officials, current and former anti-corruption investigators, prosecutors, journalists, and NGO activists. After defending my dissertation in May, I took up the position of postdoctoral fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, where I am currently revising my dissertation under the guidance of Francis Fukuyama.

[i] Thomas Carothers and Christopher Carothers, “The One Thing Modern Voters Hate Most,” Foreign Policy, July 24, 2018.:; Thomas Carothers and Christopher Carothers, “Seeking Political Stability Abroad? Fight Corruption,” The National Interest, January 25, 2018,

[ii] See for example: Martin C. McGuire and Mancur L. Jr Olson, “The Economics of Autocracy and Majority Rule,” Journal of Economic Literature, 34.1 (March 1996), pp. 72-96.; Barbara Geddes, “What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science V.2 (1999), pp. 115–44.; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics 1st ed. (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).

[iii] Barbara Geddes, “What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science V.2 (1999), pp. 115–44.; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003). Beatriz Magaloni, Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and its Demise in Mexico. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[iv] Aymo Brunetti and Beatrice Weder, “A Free Press Is Bad News for Corruption,” Journal of Public Economics, 87 (7) (2003), 1801–24.; Rod Alence, “Political Institutions and Developmental Governance in Sub-Saharan Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 42.2 (2004), 163–87.; Michael Johnston, Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy. (Cambridge, UK!; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).; Catharina Lindstedt and Daniel Naurin, “Transparency Is Not Enough: Making Transparency Effective in Reducing Corruption (La Transparence Ne Suffit Pas: Rendre La Transparence Efficace Dans La Lutte Contre La Corruption).” International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale de Science Politique 31, no. 3 (2010), pp. 301–22.; Michael Johnston, Corruption, Contention and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratization. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).; Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).