A Roundtable Review of Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence

By | October 11, 2017 | No Comments

Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

As a corrective to the democratic triumphalism following the “third wave” of democratization and the “end of history,” a renewed scholarly interest in authoritarian durability has yielded theoretical and empirical insights into the workings of autocratic regimes. Working on the foundational work of Barbara Geddes and her autocratic regime typologies, Stephen Levitsky and Lucan Way further developed the theoretical and empirical understanding of authoritarian regimes in their work on “competitive authoritarianism.” Contrary to the belief that the world was moving ineluctably towards democracy, these scholars established that autocratic regimes aren’t exactly on the way out; they are, in fact, durable and enduring. Building off of these foundational works, Milan Svolik focused squarely on the role of single (or dominant) parties in regime durability in The Politics of Authoritarian Rule and Levitsky and Way developed further the idea that parties play a crucial role, showing compelling evidence that regimes ruled over by “revolutionary” parties are among the world’s most resilient of all authoritarian political systems.

More recent additions include Alexander Dukalskis on the authoritarian public sphere and, relatedly, Sino-NK’s own work on domain consensus and information management strategies. In short, the new literature on authoritarianism has, as noted at Sino-NK, succeeded in “rescuing ‘dictatorship’ from its functionally worthless prior definition: ‘anything that isn’t democracy.'” The “authoritarian resurgence” among scholarship on political regimes is in full swing. But despite this welcome turn in the literature, little attention has been paid to the role of coercive apparatuses in authoritarian regimes. Using a carefully constructed comparative case study research design, Sheena Greitens fills this gap in the literature.

A University of Missouri professor of political science, Greitens examines the various ways coercion is employed in three cases: Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, and South Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. As our three reviews explore in more detail, the way in which coercion is employed and the degree of violence depends on the threat to the regime and the organizational capacity of the coercive institution. The findings, based on secondary source sources and archival work, will be well received by those interested in the workings of South Korea’s past autocratic regimes and, of course, the regime currently ruling North Korea. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Greitens, Sheena Chestnut, Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 978-1-31650-531-1

by Sino-NK

Theory Building: Violence in Authoritarian Regimes

by Alexander Dukalskis (University College Dublin)

This book addresses two important questions about state repression: (1) what explains variation in the design of coercive institutions in authoritarian governments, and (2) what are the results for citizens living in such contexts?

The basic gist is that if an autocratic leader perceives the greatest threat to his rule (it is almost always a he) as coming from within the elite then he will create police units and palace guards that are fragmented and watch one another. This leads to more violence against the population due to disorganization, lack of reliable intelligence, and intra-agency competition. If he perceives the threat as coming “from below” then he will organize a unified coercive apparatus to repress the population. Paradoxically, this results in less violence against the population because the more unified state apparatus is better able to surveil emerging threats and squelch them before they manifest as direct challenges.

Empirically the book works with case studies of KMT Taiwan, Marcos’ Philippines, and South Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Historians are well-placed to judge Greitens’ usage of archival material and interpretation of particular historical events, but as a political scientist the depth of archival work seems impressive.

This book should be highly recommended for students of authoritarian regimes and East Asian politics, but as with any project there are criticisms to be made and open questions that remain. Particularly germane to the readers of Sino-NK it is worth posing the question of whether the theory explains other cases in Northeast Asia. Here Greitens admits that there may be more work to do. Variation in levels and intensity of repression in the cases of China and North Korea are not easily explained by this theory. Perhaps, the author notes, this may be due to the maximalist goals of governments in each place at different times in their histories.

If this is the case, then the theory still might illuminate contemporary repression in each case given the reasonable assumption that each government is less revolutionary than it once was. Contemporary patterns of violence suggest that each regime perceives its main popular threat as being from below. Violence in each place appears relatively discriminate but especially in the case of North Korea surveillance and everyday coercion occur at very high levels. However, the anti-corruption campaign in China and elite purges in North Korea are plausible pieces of evidence to propose that each government perceives threats as emanating from inside the state.

Given the emphasis in the book on discerning the beliefs and perceptions of leaders, it will be some time (if ever) before sufficient data is available in China or North Korea to definitively resolve these issues. In the meantime this can make the theory a difficult one to apply because without access to the data that the author marshals for historical cases one is tempted to infer the perceptions of leaders from contemporary patterns of violence. However, this is a risky endeavor given that state repression can be caused by factors beyond the organization of coercive institutions.

A woodcut, “The Terrible Inspection” (Rong-zan Huang), depicts violent suppression of an anti-government uprising by by the Kuomintang-led Republic of China government in 1947. The incident is known as the February 28 Incident, or the February 28 Massacre (二二八事件). | Image: Wikicommons

The Temporal Dimension: Tracking Changes in Coercive Institutions Across Cases

by Kevin Luo and Adam Casey (University of Toronto)

In Dictators and their Secret Police, Sheena Chestnut Greitens offers a systematic account for both the variation in domestic intelligence and internal security structures across autocracies and the consequences of these institutions on the intensity and scope of repression (pp. 4-7). Like other analysts of the politics of authoritarian regimes, Greitens argues that dictatorships face two principal threats to their rule: from other elites within the regime (e.g., coups) and outside the regime (e.g., other states or mass uprisings)1)Svolik, Milan, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Talmadge, Caitlin, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). In designing coercive institutions capable of managing these threats, Greitens claims that dictatorships in fact face a “fundamental organizational tradeoff” between designing coercive intuitions in order to prevent popular overthrow or coups by other elites. Coercive institutional design, therefore, is a function of the “dominant perceived threat” on the onset of authoritarian rule. These institutions vary on two dimensions: from fragmented to unitary and from socially inclusive to exclusive. If the dominant threat is from other elites, dictators attempt to coup-proof by creating fragmented and socially exclusive coercive organizations with overlapping mandates and isolated insiders to prevent collusion and defection. To prevent popular mobilization or external threats from overthrowing the regime, autocrats must instead foster unitary and inclusive coercive organizations as operational effectiveness is more important than preventing a coup in these cases. These institutional designs subsequently effect the character of repression, as more fragmented and socially exclusive coercive organizations are both less capable of collecting intelligence necessary for selective repression and maintain social and material incentives for the escalation of violence. It is also a dynamic theory of institutional change in that Greitens argues changing threat perceptions can cause a transformation in coercive institutional design over time, though generally toward institutional decay and greater fragmentation and exclusivity than the reverse.

While Greitens makes numerous theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of coercive institutions and repression under dictatorship, her argument faces some limitations. First, in arguing that there is a necessary tradeoff between coup-proofing and managing popular unrest (p. 32), Greitens fails to consider revolutionary regimes 2)Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Durability of Revolutionary Regimes,” Journal of Democracy, 2013, 24 no. 3 (2013): 5-17.which do not appear to require institutional fragmentation in order to coup-proof. Second, the theory offered by Greitens assumes that incumbents face the same fiscal constraints (zero) and that foreign patrons only affect organizational culture and threat perception (pp. 40-41) rather than the financial resources available to incumbents. The largest issue, however, is that Greitens argues that threats to regimes are unrelated to the coercive institutional structure of these regimes themselves (in political science parlance, are exogenous) (pp. 35-36). Rather, it seems highly plausible that coercive institutions might not merely respond in character to threats, but might shape the type of threats they face in the first place (for example, we might expect greater fragmentation and exclusivity to increase the risk of civil war).

The empirical findings generally hold water to Greitens’ theoretical claims. Three issues are worthy of note: first, the book successfully demonstrates variation across time and space through an elegant research design. South Korea is the “theory establishing” case study here: the author observes the transition from an exclusive and fragmented coercive apparatus under Park Chung-hee to a more unitary and inclusive one under Chun Doo Hwan. This is due to altered “threat perceptions” of the dictator: Chun was more pre-occupied with mass mobilizations, while Park was more sensitive towards coup threats. In addition, both the Philippines and Taiwan3)Greitens does briefly explore the variation over time in Taiwan as well: Chiang Kai-shek installed a more fragmented intelligence apparatus while the Kuomintang was still in power in mainland China, yet was persuaded to adopt a more inclusionary institutional design due to rising ethnic tensions (i.e. popular threat) when the regime retreated to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War. corroborate the argument of the coup-proofing vs. popular unrest logic of coercive apparatus design, respectively.

Second, all three cases were staunch anti-communist regimes during the Cold War supported by American patronage, but it turns out that the US had negligible influence on the client’s coercive apparatus design. Greitens finds that the advice and leverage of foreign military advisors is often neglected by the client dictator. For example, Marcos was willing to sacrifice American foreign assistance when he decided to amp up the coup-proofing capabilities of his police force, while Chiang Kai-shek introduced a Leninist political commissar system into the security services much to the objection of his American advisers.4)Regarding the latter point, we actually do not find much cited evidence, although Greitens states the following: “he [Chiang] eschewed these in favor of a system of political commissars and youth league organizations that his American allies and American-aligned opponents criticized for their similarity to Nazi and Communist structures” (p. 110).

Finally, in terms of the argument’s generalizability, the author is careful in transplanting the theory to other communist regimes such as China and North Korea (pp. 301-304), especially regarding the two’s history of extreme state-sanctioned violence, and suggests that her argument is best suited at explaining “everyday repression” instead of violent state campaigns (such as the Cultural Revolution in China). For China, the creation of an inclusionary coercive apparatus – which relies more discriminate policing and social networks to demobilize popular contention – was only possible once elite threats were tempered after the early years of severe factional struggles. At least in contemporary China, both these elements of inclusionary coercion can be found in its current system of repression5)Rachel E. Sten and Jonathan Hassid, “Amplifying Silence: Uncertainty and Control Parables in Contemporary China,” Comparative Political Studies 45 no. 10 (2012): 1230-1254 and Kevin J. O’brien and Yanhua Deng, “Relational Repression in China: Using Social Ties to Demobilize Protestors,” The China Quarterly, 215 (2012); 533-552.Greitens’ book demonstrates the usefulness of revisiting past authoritarian regimes and its institutional development over a long time horizon, much like the recent historical turn in democratization studies 6)Giovanni Capoccia and Daniel Ziblatt, “The Historical Turn in Democratization Studies: A New Research Agenda for Europe and Beyond”, in Comparative Political Studies 43 no. 8-9 (2010): 931-968.In terms of practicality, studying now-defunct authoritarian regimes like the Park regime in the ROK and the Chiang regime in Taiwan is relatively feasible compared with currently authoritarian states, given the accessibility to elite-level documents and data. In addition, a longer temporal perspective also contributes to the view that authoritarian regimes are never static Leviathans, but rather ever-evolving products of historical institutional layering and constant tinkering by authoritarian elites.

Defector Kim Kwang-il provided the following drawings to the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea based on his knowledge of torture in the country’s prison camps. | Image: Kim Kwang-il/UN

Thick Ties that Bind: The Stickiness of Coercive Institutions

by Darcie Draudt

While the topic of Korea’s authoritarian era has been a common target of students of modern South Korea, Greitens — trained as a comparative political scientist — finds a fresh and welcome angle through her theoretical and methodological choices. By situating her work in the broader political science literature on states’ use of violence, she engages rational-choice approaches on strategic use of policing and state violence while also critiquing the overly functionalist flaws of earlier work. These works address why and how a state uses violence against civilians. Methodologically, Greitens not only uses interesting primary source documents from the period under study, but puts them in conversation with the scholarly canon on the modern South Korea and compares them with other autocratic regimes in East Asia.

Greiten’s research design allows her to produce a provocative take on how and why autocratic states use violence against their own people by examining threat perception and political context. Her central argument is that authoritarian rulers face a tradeoff when they design a security apparatus based on perceived threats: external, popular, or elite rivals (though the book focuses on the latter two). This premise leads to a complex analysis: These threats determine the shape and organization of formal coercive institutions, which employ predictable patterns of state violence to protect regime survival. The institutions, in the process, become sticky and unable to adapt to new or different threats.

The real grist of Greitens’ work is in its comparative approach. She has done ample primary- and secondary-source research, including archival research and elite interviews, to make viable and helpful comparisons between the 20th century autocratic regimes in South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. However, for the Sino-NK audience here this review focuses on the contributions to political science (e.g., the theory-building of the book) with reference to her study of Korea’s political development.

The empirical chapters (3 through 8) present a wealth of interesting information on how specific coercive institutions formed and police citizens. Indeed, central to her argument is the formation and maintenance of these institutions, which become “sticky” and find it hard to adapt to changing threats to the regime. The critical juncture of the autocrat’s assumption of power informs modes of repression.

This sort of path dependence focuses on the institutions themselves, but a great deal of the book’s empirical chapters suggests important links between key actors. For example, Park Chung-hee’s fear of rivals in the KCIA and military spurred him to exercise the “coup-proofing” mode of policing and repression that Greitens conceptualizes. But these relationships are thick, burdened with a social, economic, and political asymmetrical co-dependency, and the ties are political and contingent. Such a relational approach would further critique the functionalism that Greitens seeks to avoid. Greitens take care to examine the coercive institutions and even individual actors involved in making choices on policing. Future work should examine the relationships of power and interest. The power that pervades institutional creation (combined with the continuation/difference of threats) prior to and after the autocrat seizing power shapes the institutions. For example, a network approach that maps out position of agents and institutions and their complex interactions would in fact strengthen the theoretical argument Greitens makes in the book.

There is a second points — important but underdeveloped — in Greiten’s examination of the differences between the Park and Chun regimes in South Korea: the issue of regime legitimacy. The legitimacy of Park’s government was undergirded by economic successes and popular support in the rivalry with North Korea; the Chun government was not. Not only were the regime threats different for Park and Chun, the regimes themselves were arguably different. Thus, rival elites and popular dissent differed by nature of the different modes of legitimacy. Popular legitimacy combined with a strong state capacity limits the rivals considered, so there is no space for “defection” among the populace or among elites. This is not the case in autocratic regimes that do not enjoy popular support (and/or lack strong capacity), where rivals for power are attractive options for resistance.

Greitens seeks to explain variation in state violence in autocracies, arguing that “the design of coercive institutions fundamentally shapes patterns of repression and state violence under authoritarianism” (p. 15), but the work does much more than that: it addresses how those institutional designs come about in the first place. The book stands as an admirable and helpful contribution to several fields of study, including comparative politics, area studies, and the study of violence, and can spur future investigations into coercive institutions and political development across and within a variety of cases.

   [ + ]

1. Svolik, Milan, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Talmadge, Caitlin, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).
2. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Durability of Revolutionary Regimes,” Journal of Democracy, 2013, 24 no. 3 (2013): 5-17.
3. Greitens does briefly explore the variation over time in Taiwan as well: Chiang Kai-shek installed a more fragmented intelligence apparatus while the Kuomintang was still in power in mainland China, yet was persuaded to adopt a more inclusionary institutional design due to rising ethnic tensions (i.e. popular threat) when the regime retreated to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War.
4. Regarding the latter point, we actually do not find much cited evidence, although Greitens states the following: “he [Chiang] eschewed these in favor of a system of political commissars and youth league organizations that his American allies and American-aligned opponents criticized for their similarity to Nazi and Communist structures” (p. 110).
5. Rachel E. Sten and Jonathan Hassid, “Amplifying Silence: Uncertainty and Control Parables in Contemporary China,” Comparative Political Studies 45 no. 10 (2012): 1230-1254 and Kevin J. O’brien and Yanhua Deng, “Relational Repression in China: Using Social Ties to Demobilize Protestors,” The China Quarterly, 215 (2012); 533-552.
6. Giovanni Capoccia and Daniel Ziblatt, “The Historical Turn in Democratization Studies: A New Research Agenda for Europe and Beyond”, in Comparative Political Studies 43 no. 8-9 (2010): 931-968.