Populist leaders around the world often fight against corruption in an effort to win public support. Conventional wisdom holds that this strategy works because leaders can signal their benevolent intentions by removing corrupt officials. We argue that fighting against corruption can produce unintended consequences. By revealing scandals of corrupt officials, anti-corruption campaigns can alter citizens’ beliefs about public officials and lead to disenchantment about political institutions. We test this argument by examining how China’s current anti-corruption campaign has changed citizens’ public support for the government and the Communist Party. We analyze the results of two surveys conducted before and during the campaign, and employ a difference-in-differences strategy to show that corruption investigations decrease respondents’ support for the central government and party. We also examine our respondents’ prior and posterior beliefs, and the results support our updating mechanism.
Yuhua Wang is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He received his B.A. from Peking University and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Yuhua's research has focused on the emergence of state institutions, with a regional focus on China. Yuhua is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a book-length project to examine long-term state development in China.