Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Retrospective Economic Accountability under Authoritarianism: Evidence from China

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Retrospective Economic Accountability under Authoritarianism: Evidence from China

Article excerpt

The relationship between the turnover of government leaders and economic performance has rarely been studied in authoritarian regimes. In mainland China the reforms of the past quarter century have increased the economic accountability of local leaders. At the same time, there is some evidence that informal and idiosyncratic factors are more likely to operate at lower levels of government. An analysis of a comprehensive panel data set shows that Chinese county leaders are frequently replaced and that revenue growth increases the probability of promotion of county chief executives. Newly installed or minority nationality chief executives are less likely to be replaced.

Keywords: government turnover; economic performance; responsibility hypothesis; county leaders; China

The relationship between the turnover of government leaders and economic performance in Western democracies has been extensively discussed in the literature on economic voting. In the economic voting model, incumbent government leaders are held accountable for the economic performance of their jurisdiction, and voters punish or reward them through regular elections. The so-called "responsibility hypothesis" has received quite consistent empirical support from studies of national and subnational elections in democracies, where retrospective evaluation of economic or fiscal conditions plays an important role in the political fate of elected officials all over the world (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000, 213). More recent studies have also shown the importance of the political context of economic voting, such as institutional clarity of responsibility (Anderson 2006, 449), existence of better alternatives, political apathy, and ideological orientation (Weyland 2003, 823).

Besides elected officials, there are also unelected administrators in democracies. The turnover pattern of top administrators appointed to local governments differs significantly from that of local elected officials and probably serves as better reference for this research. Much of the existent literature in the American context suggests that the turnover of local government administrators is affected by "push" (such as political conflict) and "pull" factors (such as advancement elsewhere). Economic performance could also play an important role here, although the mechanism of economic accountability is fundamentally different from that in authoritarian regimes. Feiock et al. (2001, 105) analyzed a panel data set of U.S. cities from the 1970s to the 1990s and found that growth in per capita personal income deters turnover of city administrators, which suggests that economically high-performing administrators are less likely to be fired yet no more likely to leave for better positions. At the same time, revenue growth in a democracy could be a liability rather than an asset for administrators due to the unpopularity of taxes, although the political fallout over tax increase may have affected elected officials more than city administrators (Feiock et al. 2001, 106).

In contrast to the proliferating literature on economic voting or administrator turnover in democracies, few works have investigated the relationship between leadership turnover and economic performance in authoritarian regimes. Obviously, the lack of popular, competitive, free, fair, and regular elections removes the essential mechanism of economic voting. However, elite mobility, especially at the subnational level, under an authoritarian regime does not have to be an entirely "black box." Local leaders are both political agents and government administrators. While their appointment is ultimately a political choice made by superiors, that decision can be at least partially based on retrospective evaluation of local leaders' economic performance. There is nothing inherent in such systems to prevent the operation of retrospective economic accountability of government officials, and indeed there may even be more clarity of responsibility. …

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