Compensation and the Consolidation of Authoritarian Power: Evidence from China’s 2016 PLA Reform

January 2023
Working Paper

The extant literature suggests that a dramatic move to weaken the power of a large segment of the military elite would invite potential collective resistance against the dictator. Yet, other theoretical work suggests that the dictator can divide even a powerful elite by offering selective incentives to a subset, thus forestalling collective resistance even in the midst of a naked grab for power. We examine the dynamics of power consolidation through the case of Xi’s 2016 reform of the PLA. Through an original data base of Xi’s activities, we first show evidence that during the reform, Xi spent exceptional effort to meet with his core supporters and with affected senior officers in the PLA, compared to periods before and after the reform. These meetings took place in addition to institutionalized meetings of the PLA in preparation for the reform. We further show that Xi compensated senior officers in units affected by the reform with promotions and delayed retirement, presumably to buy their acquiescence to the reform. Meanwhile, he did not display obvious favoritism to members of his own faction during the gestation period of the reform. After he successfully consolidated power in 2016, however, he provided members of his own faction with promotions and delayed retirement while forcing those close to Hu Jintao out of office.

  • Collect large-scale biographical panel data of PLA officers.
  • Estimate patterns for promotion within PLA before/after PLA reform.
  • Finds that Xi only started to promote followers after power consolidation.