Taking Authoritarian Anti-Corruption Reform Seriously

Taking Authoritarian Anti-Corruption Reform Seriously

By Christopher Carothers, Stanford University

Scholars generally assume that authoritarian regimes will not curb corruption because autocrats benefit from it politically, use anti-corruption campaigns as excuses to purge rivals, and reject democratic institutions widely thought to reduce corruption, such as judicial independence. However, I argue that authoritarian regimes curb corruption more frequently—and sometimes more effectively—than scholars realize. Using a novel scoring system for anti-corruption efforts, I find that there have been at least twenty-five substantial anti-corruption efforts and nine successful reforms by authoritarian regimes in recent decades. Despite the association between democracy and corruption control, successful reforms have been by fully authoritarian regimes, rather than hybrid regimes, and employed a decidedly authoritarian approach, rather than the conventional approach emphasizing democratic institutions. This authoritarian approach to corruption control commonly involves power centralization, top-down control and penetration, and regime propaganda. I illustrate these points with a “least likely” case study of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s controversial anti-corruption campaign. At the theoretical level, I suggest that authoritarian regimes succeed in overcoming challenges—corruption being a hard challenge—through their own institutional strengths, rather than by mimicking democracies. This points to the need to reconsider certain influential views in the study of authoritarianism.

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