Frightened Mandarins: The Adverse Effects of Fighting Corruption on Local Bureaucracy

Erik H. Wang

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Canonical theories of bureaucracy demonstrate the need for enhanced monitoring in government hierarchies. I argue that intensive top-down monitoring may reduce the productivity of bureaucrats by frightening them away from the informal practices that they would otherwise rely on when completing daily tasks. Utilizing a unique dataset of sub-provincial inspections in China’s recent anti-corruption campaign, I identify this “chilling effect” by exploiting variation in the timing of inspections from 2012 to 2017. I show that these anti-corruption activities lower the area of land development projects proposed by bureaucrats. Causal mediation analyses with investigation data and original measures of corruption potential reveal that these effects are unlikely driven by reduction of actual corruption. Extension analyses suggest similar consequences on revenue collection and environmental regulation. Although scholars of state-building equate low corruption with effective bureaucracy, these findings present a paradox where intensive state-led efforts to lower corruption may further undermine bureaucrats’ productivity.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)1807-1843
    JournalComparative Political Studies
    Issue number11
    StatePublished - Sep 2022


    • China
    • anti-corruption
    • bureaucracy
    • political economy of development
    • state capacity

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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