Combating Corruption in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from China, South Korea, and Taiwan
Calls by autocrats to clean up corruption are often dismissed as cynical and politically motivated—perhaps simply an excuse to purge rivals. Corruption control measures are indeed rarely unbiased, but authoritarian regimes vary greatly in how much they tolerate corruption. In many cases, anti-corruption reform is systemic and too substantive 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 dissertation addresses these questions and argues for a new understanding of the politics of corruption in authoritarian regimes. Firstly, I find that autocrats do not launch anti-corruption campaigns just when they need to purge political rivals, but also when they face state-building challenges. This is particularly true for countries in East Asia, where Japan’s unique rise and imperialism motivated defensive but also emulatory state-building. Secondly, while democracies curb corruption by strengthening institutions like checks and balances and the rule of law, I find that authoritarian reform efforts succeed when autocrats enjoy unconstrained leadership and can command a powerful state. This strong leader-strong state combination allows for an alternative, authoritarian approach: aggressive, top-down measures that disrupt entrenched corruption. Finally, I find that through this approach, corruption control can help autocrats improve regime durability. These findings come from nine case studies of attempted anti-corruption reform in China, South Korea, and Taiwan and are supported by secondary analysis of twenty-one cases in other nondemocracies. The research methods are primarily qualitative, including extensive archival research, expert and elite interviews, and the use of written primary and secondary sources in Chinese and Korean.
My study has at least three theoretical implications. Firstly, we need to revise common assumptions about the scarcity of authoritarian corruption control. Secondly, despite the well-known incentives for autocrats to allow corruption, cleaner government can also bring strategic benefits. And lastly, authoritarian politics are not just a partial or deteriorated version of democratic politics, as is sometimes assumed; authoritarian regimes curb corruption in very different ways than democracies, reflecting varied political conditions.