The Shadow Cost of State Violence: Evidence from Bureaucratic Purges in China
53 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2023 Last revised: 19 Aug 2023
Date Written: April 25, 2023
State violence inflicts obvious direct costs on its victims, but many of its significant consequences may be indirect. Building on the literature on agency problems in authoritarian regimes, we argue that coercion against bureaucrats motivates them to pursue over-zealous goals at the expense of wider social costs. We test this argument by studying how bureaucratic purges in China under Mao impacted the behavior of local bureaucrats during the Great Leap Forward, a campaign that caused over 30 million deaths from mass starvation. Exploiting variations in purge intensity across about 1,400 counties, we find the purge intimidated local bureaucrats into inflating agricultural production and extracting excessive amounts of grain from farmers, which resulted in significantly higher famine mortality. The results highlight the downstream perils of “accountability by violence” in autocratic regimes.
Keywords: purges, state violence, bureaucracy, famine, China
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