Anti-corruption efforts by authoritarian regimes are often assumed to be political charades or excuses to purge rivals. The common view is that meaningful corruption control involves strengthening democratic institutions, such as judicial independence and the rule of law, which autocrats are largely unwilling to do. However, I argue that successful anti-corruption reform by nondemocratic governments is more common than is widely acknowledged. Using a novel scoring system for anti-corruption efforts, I show that there have been at least nine successful reforms in autocracies in recent decades. Moreover, my research finds that in these cases autocrats did not reduce corruption through the conventional democratic approach, but instead used decidedly authoritarian methods, and often strengthened their regimes in the process. I illustrate these points by analyzing Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign in China, alongside cases in authoritarian South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere.
Christopher Carothers is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. His research in comparative politics focuses on East Asia, authoritarianism, and the politics of corruption, and has previously been published in the Journal of Democracy and various media outlets. He received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in 2019.