Combating Corruption in Authoritarian Regimes
How and why do authoritarian regimes succeed in curbing corruption? Scholars generally assume that autocrats will not curb government corruption because they benefit from it and curbing it would require ceding power to democratic or quasi-democratic institutions. However, 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.
I find that authoritarian anti-corruption efforts succeed when motivated autocrats enjoy high discretionary authority and can command a capable state apparatus. This strong leader–strong state combination is effective because it allows autocrats to employ a decidedly authoritarian playbook for reform. While democracies curb corruption by strengthening institutions like checks and balances and the rule of law, the authoritarian playbook relies on centralized executive power to disrupt entrenched corruption. I find that autocrats curb corruption in order to support broader revolutionary or developmental state-building projects, though they often have other motives as well. Through the authoritarian playbook, autocrats can advance these state-building projects without ceding power and strengthen their regimes. These findings are based on controlled comparisons of nine authoritarian anti-corruption efforts of varying levels of success in China, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as, to a lesser extent, analysis of cases in 12 other nondemocracies. The research for this study included archival research, expert and elite interviews, and the use of written primary and secondary sources in Chinese and Korean.
This study makes several contributions. First, authoritarian regimes often try to curb corruption and benefit from corruption control successes. Second, high discretionary authority is critical to anti-corruption success, suggesting that under certain conditions personalism is an authoritarian asset, rather than a liability. Third, quasi-democratic institutions, like semi-competitive elections, constrain autocrats and hinder anti-corruption efforts. This point cuts against the increasingly common argument that autocrats can manipulate quasi-democratic institutions to strengthen their regimes. Finally, this study’s analysis of authoritarian corruption control demonstrates the broader point that a regime’s durability depends, even more than on its origins, on its continuing ability to reform and strengthen itself.