Combating Corruption in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from China, South Korea, and Taiwan
The conventional wisdom is that nondemocratic regimes do not control corruption because autocrats rely on it to buy political support and reform would require ceding power to democratic or quasi-democratic institutions. But authoritarian anti-corruption reform, though not the norm, is too common to be called exceptional and often too impactful to be written off as a political charade. So why do some autocrats try to curb corruption? What explains the success or failure of their efforts? And what are the political consequences of these anti-corruption outcomes?
My study addresses these questions and has three main findings. First, after weighing multiple motivators including the desire to purge political rivals, pressure from quasi-democratic institutions, and military threat, I argue autocrats are most effectively motivated to curb corruption when they are committed to ambitious state-building projects, which anti-corruption efforts aim to support. Second, I find that anti-corruption efforts succeed when motivated autocrats enjoy unconstrained leadership with high discretionary authority and command an organized and capable state. This combination of powers allows autocrats to deploy aggressive, top-down strategies that disrupt the corrupt status quo. Finally, I find that through this alternative authoritarian approach, some autocrats are able to curb corruption without ceding power and can use anti-corruption campaigns to bolster state-building projects and strengthen their regime. These findings are based on my examination of nine cases of authoritarian anti-corruption efforts in China, South Korea, and Taiwan since 1945 and, to a lesser extent, nineteen cases from other nondemocracies. The research methods are primarily qualitative, including archival research, expert and elite interviews, and the use of written primary and secondary sources in Mandarin, Korean, and English.
My conclusions point to the need to revise common assumptions about the supposed scarcity of authoritarian corruption control and its lack of appeal for autocrats. In addition, my study cuts against the increasingly popular notion that quasi-democratic institutions improve the strength or durability of authoritarian regimes. This follows from my finding that anti-corruption success by authoritarian regimes, unlike by democracies, depends on the forceful exercise of unconstrained leadership. In such cases, quasi-democratic institutions may actually hinder anti-corruption efforts.