Chinese President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a cornerstone of his reign. The Chinese Communist Party disciplined 300,000 officials for corruption in 2015. Hundreds of high-level leaders have been caught up by the campaign.
Among the Chinese people, Xi is enormously popular and his anti-corruption efforts have won widespread applause. Yet Xi’s crackdown has little to do with good government. In The Dictator’s Handbook, Bueno de Mesquito and Alastair Smith point out that dictators survive by channeling private rewards to a coalition of supporters who are essential to maintaining power. Over time, the number of individuals attached to the ruling coalition tends to grow, as does the price coalition members demand for support. We might call this the “too many pigs at the trough” problem.
This may be sustainable if the economy is rapidly growing, but becomes more problematic once growth slows. Because the rents extracted by corrupt officials in fact serve as dead weight from an economic perspective, corruption itself can become a source of worsening economic performance. The costs of paying off a bloated coalition of greedy supporters are considerable: a reduced take for the dictator himself, lagging revenue growth and declining popular legitimacy, the latter necessitating increasingly costly repression.
All of this explains why newly installed leaders move quickly to cull the number of pigs at the trough. By retargeting private rewards only to those whose support is truly essential and reducing the size of payoffs to the minimum necessary to avert defection, the dictator thereby shores up his power position with a smaller and more manageable ruling coalition. Of course, culling the herd means more than simply cutting rewards to non-essential coalition members. They must be jailed or otherwise rendered incapable of retaliating. Ruthlessness toward those unlucky enough to be targeted also sends a salutary message to the remaining essentials should the latter have ideas about combining against the dictator.
Xi’s campaign is reshaping the size and composition of the ruling coalition and the size of the payoffs to remaining members. But as long as China’s political order remains a single party dictatorship, a system for funneling private rewards to member of the ruling coalition will remain essential to its functioning.