Sunday, April 03, 2011

Careerists and Ideologues in China's Great Leap Famine

From the department of perverse incentives, a new APSR paper by James Kai-Sing Kung and Shuo Chen ["The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China's Great Leap Famine," vol 105, pp. 27-45]:

A salient feature of China's Great Leap Famine is that political radicalism varied enormously across provinces. Using excessive grain procurement as a pertinent measure, we find that such variations were patterned systematically on the political career incentives of Communist Party officials rather than the conventionally assumed ideology or personal idiosyncrasies. Political rank alone can explain 16.83% of the excess death rate: the excess procurement ratio of provinces governed by alternate members of the Central Committee was about 3% higher than in provinces governed by full members, or there was an approximate 1.11% increase in the excess death rate. The stronger career incentives of alternate members can be explained by the distinctly greater privileges, status, and power conferred only on the rank of full members of the Central Committee and the “entry barriers” to the Politburo that full members faced.

This seems to me to tie into the “signalling” theme of the last post on cults of personality (which proved surprisingly popular). The problem here appears from the point of view of the people who want access to power and privilege: how can they signal sufficient commitment to the leadership so that they are rewarded with power and privileges?

Here is what Kung and Chen argue happened in China. In the hierarchy of the CCP, the three highest levels are politburo members, full members of the central committee, and alternate members of the central committee. The politburo is tiny – about 20 people. (This is, we might say, the highest level of the “winning coalition”). In Mao’s time, most of them were founding members of the CCP, had gone through the Long March, or had otherwise participated extensively in guerrilla activities before 1949. Generally speaking, it was thus very difficult for anyone who did not have these experiences to enter the politburo at the time. But it was possible to move from alternate membership to full membership in the Central Committee, a larger body of about 300 or so people (the exact size of the Central Committee has varied over time); and this move brought substantial material and status benefits – more offices, opportunities for patronage, etc. Yet in order to move from alternate to full membership, one had to give sufficient indications of commitment and reliability. In this case, Mao indicated that rewards would come to those who signalled credible radicalism, and credible radicalism could only be signalled by excessive grain procurement, leading to famine.

The Great Leap provided these party officials [alternate members of the Central Committee] with a rare, extraordinary opportunity to respond to Mao’s unambiguous signal that radical behavior would be duly rewarded. The evidence clearly shows that even after controlling for the idiosyncrasies of individual provincial leaders and variations in local conditions, the alternate members were, as a group, indeed more likely to act radically. Our findings thus substantially challenge the reigning assumption that ideology is the main source of bureaucratic radicalism in totalitarian regimes. (P. 43)

But since these full members could not move any further up the hierarchy (the only people who could enter the Politburo at the time were those who had been important in guerrilla warfare or had been through the Long March), once they reached the top they became less ideological:

The idea that career incentives matter is further bolstered by the provocatively counterintuitive finding that radicalism declined among those bureaucrats who, although still having room to move further up the career ladder [to the politburo], nonetheless lacked the necessary “prerevolutionary credentials” to do so, at which point most apparently became satisfied careerists rather than revolutionary zealots. (P. 43).

An interesting question is how a dictatorship moves from the signalling equilibrium where crazy radicalism is rewarded to the signalling equilibrium where other things (e.g., “measured economic performance”) are rewarded, as China has moved. Indeed, it seems to be a common though not universal pattern in communist (and perhaps other) dictatorships: a period of radical policy, with high levels of repression and ideological “investment” (Mao, Stalin, Ulbricht) is often followed by a period characterized by lower levels of ideological fervor, less “proactive” repression, and more emphasis on the provision of material benefits for both the “selectorate” (members of the party) and the rest of the population (Deng, Khrushchev, Honecker). (These material benefits need not consist in economic growth per se – it may be just an emphasis on economic security for the majority of the population and further material privileges for the party, as in East Germany). Totalitarian dictatorships seem to turn into careerist hierarchies concerned with preserving the material privileges of its elites and preventing revolution from below through economic “bribes.” Why?

Kung and Chen seem to think that this simply depends on the character of the dictator: the key difference between Mao’s China and modern China is that Mao was crazy and his successors were not, to put the point bluntly. (I’m putting words in their mouths, but the basic point is simply that Mao was ideologically committed to a crazy vision of communism while his successors, starting with Deng, were more committed to a pragmatic model of economic development). The consequence is that the system remains susceptible to economic disaster, even though it is doing well today:

[I]n the absence of political checks and balances on the dictator, he can easily misuse the same career incentives that have been employed to promote economic growth [in the post-Mao period] under the same conditions of centralized personnel control by the nomenklatura and economic decentralization, leading in this case to economic disaster. (P. 43)

But this seems unsatisfactory to me, though there is probably some truth in the idea. Here are a couple of alternative theories (or rather, sketches of theories). First, following an interesting argument by Kurt Weyland (2008, gated link), one might think that dictators, like all leaders (but even more so: they are an “epistemic bottleneck”), are cognitively constrained; they simply implement whatever policy is seen to be “effective” in their milieu given their objectives (which may include building up the status of the country in the international arena, an objective that we may assume both Mao as well as later Chinese leaders held, and which involves pursuing policies that they believe strengthen the economy). In other words, they emulate those [countries, leaders] they trust, but do not really know what will work (in fact, nobody really does); this accounts for the fact that policies get adopted as “models” and transferred from one country to another sometimes rather quickly. In the 50s, radical agricultural collectivization and other such policies were thought to be “effective” among  Chinese communist leaders (as they had been thought to be effective among Soviet leaders slightly earlier); later they became discredited, but “market-based” policies became popular. As long as relatively good policies are thought to be “effective” in the dictator’s milieu, centralized  dictatorships with the sort of personnel policies that China has will do relatively well, as the dictator (or tiny ruling group) can effectively reward supporters for the implementation of the policy. But if disastrous policies again become popular in the ruling group’s milieu, then the dictatorship will do badly.

But perhaps what happens is that in demanding credible signals of commitment from the upper levels of the hierarchy, the dictator necessarily gets the unprincipled careerists. (This would not come as a surprise to Machiavelli, among other theorists of autocracy: beware of flatterers). Imagine you have a population of principled and unprincipled upper-level party members. The principled party members mostly agree with the dictator, but not 100%; because they are principled, they have their own interpretation of whatever doctrine they all claim to espouse. And they are unwilling to compromise; they have, as we say, “principles.” By contrast, the careerists are willing to say and do anything for the sake of advancement. When the dictator demands radical policy, the people without principled commitments jump at the opportunity, whereas the principled members of the hierarchy get disproportionately punished for demurring or having independent thoughts. (The Bukharins get purged, for example). Over time, the upper level of the hierarchy fills up with careerists. But when the dictator dies, the careerists prefer not to have to do so much counterproductive signalling, and they are now in a position to select the next dictator. So they tend to go for people who are likely to protect their material interests rather than true ideologues, and as a side effect the dictatorship lowers the level of repression and becomes more focused on providing economic goods for both the party organization and the rest of the population. (Also, insofar as they lower the level of repression, they now need to provide material benefits in order to avoid challenges from outside the party organization).

I’m not sure this is right; I would imagine that one would have to first establish whether or not totalitarian dictatorships (high ideological investment, high proactive repression) do reliably turn into post-totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships (low ideological investment, low proactive repression, a focus on material “bribes”). If it is right, I suspect that this sort of success eventually runs out: without political competition or ideological commitment, the state (or the party) decays into a pure patronage organization staffed by careerists. This seems to have happened in the Soviet Union, though there the problem was compounded by the reliance on central planning (which is to corruption as clouds are to rain); could it also happen in China?

[Update 4/4/11: Added Kung and Shen's title, corrected some obvious typos].


  1. Thanks for posting this, it's a great read. So much so that we've recommended it as 'writing worth reading' on

  2. This is interesting, but there is unlikely to be enough "data", only anecdotes. Most "dictatorships" in history have been Royal Dynasties, as seems to be the goal in N. Korea this decade. But that's unique--yep, there aren't enough dictatorships to generalize well for the post-WW I / industrialized society world.

    You fail to mention a likely desire of most modern dictators, to become the Philosopher King of Plato, making the good policies. Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew provides the model there.

    Which I think many Chinese leaders are, secretly (?) trying to follow for China. Perhaps the President of Rwanda, as well.

  3. This is interesting, but there is unlikely to be enough "data", only anecdotes. Most "dictatorships" in history have been Royal Dynasties, as seems to be the goal in N. Korea this decade. But that's unique--yep, there aren't enough dictatorships to generalize well for the post-WW I / industrialized society world.

    You fail to mention a likely desire of most modern dictators, to become the Philosopher King of Plato, making the good policies. Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew provides the model there.

    Which I think many Chinese leaders are, secretly (?) trying to follow for China. Perhaps the President of Rwanda, as well.

  4. Hi Tom,

    You are right that most dictatorships have been monarchies. But there are still a lot of dictatorships in the 20th century which have not been monarchical - see the DD measure of democracy and dictatorship, which I've used in several posts in this blog. (Consider, e.g., The more important problem from a statistical point of view is that there have been few truly totalitarian dictatorships - most dictators seem content with using just enough repression and buying just enough loyalty to get rich from the state. Very few, in my view, seem to truly want to be "philosopher kings" - Lee stands out as an almost solitary example. And even if they did, most could not truly figure it out; the problem of figuring out the appropriate policy to even produce moderate prosperity is nontrivial.