Public Choice

, Volume 180, Issue 3–4, pp 469–500 | Cite as

“Mao’s last revolution”: a dictator’s loyalty–competence tradeoff

  • Ying BaiEmail author
  • Titi Zhou


Although competent (vs mediocre) subordinates, while better contributors to dictator success, are also more prone to treason, it remains unclear empirically how (and even whether) dictators address this loyalty–competence tradeoff. To throw light on this issue, we use a biographical dataset of Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CC) members from 1945 to 1982 to investigate the tradeoff faced by Mao Zedong in selecting his senior officials. Our results suggest that during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the foundation and consolidation of the new regime lowered the payoff from subordinate competence, leading to the purging of competent CC members and their replacement by mediocre substitutes. Additional analyses of the competing mechanisms proposed by different theoretical models indicate further that capable young subordinates are more likely to be purged, possibly because they have more outside options (e.g., future hiring by the dictator’s successor) and, hence, expend less effort on loyalty.


Loyalty–competence tradeoff Political selection Cultural Revolution China 

JEL Classification

D73 P26 C72 



We are grateful to Sacha Becker, James Kai-sing Kung, Margaret Levi, Konstantin Sonin, Daniel Treisman, Jing Zhan, and workshop/conference participants at the EEA Annual Congress 2013, Peking University and Tsinghua University.


  1. Acemoglu, D., Egorov, G., & Sonin, K. (2008). Coalition formation in non-democracies. The Review of Economic Studies, 75(4), 987–1009.Google Scholar
  2. Bastid, M. (1970). Economic necessity and political ideals in educational reform during the Cultural Revolution. China Quarterly, 42, 16–45.Google Scholar
  3. Besley, T., Montalvo, J. G., & Reynal-Querol, M. (2011). Do educated leaders matter? The Economic Journal, 121(554), 205–227.Google Scholar
  4. Besley, T., & Reynal-Querol, M. (2011). Do democracies select more educated leaders? American Political Science Review, 105(3), 552–566.Google Scholar
  5. Boix, C., & Svolik, M. W. (2013). The foundations of limited authoritarian government: Institutions, commitment, and power-sharing in dictatorships. Journal of Politics, 75(2), 300–316.Google Scholar
  6. Bueno de Mesquita, B., & Smith, A. (2011). The dictator’s handbook: Why bad behavior is almost always good politics. New York: Public Affairs.Google Scholar
  7. Bueno de Mesquita, B., Smith, A., Siverson, R. M., & Morrow, J. D. (2003). The logic of political survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Burkart, M., Panunzi, F., & Shleifer, A. (2003). Family firms. The Journal of Finance, 58(5), 2167–2201.Google Scholar
  9. Card, D. (1999). The causal effect of education on earnings. In O. C. Ashenfelter & D. Card (Eds.), Handbook of Labor economics (Vol. 3, pp. 1801–1863). North Holland: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  10. Edwards, G. C. (2001). Why not the best? The loyalty–competence trade off in presidential appointments. The Brookings Review, 19, 12–16.Google Scholar
  11. Egorov, G., & Sonin, K. (2011). Dictators and their viziers: Endogenizing the loyalty–competence trade-off. Journal of the European Economic Association, 9(5), 903–930.Google Scholar
  12. Friebel, G., & Raith, M. (2004). Abuse of authority and hierarchical communication. The Rand Journal of Economics, 35(2), 224–244.Google Scholar
  13. Glazer, A. (2002). Allies as rivals: Internal and external rent seeking. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 48(2), 155–162.Google Scholar
  14. Harasymiw, B. (1969). Nomenklatura: The Soviet Communist Party’s leadership recruitment system. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 2(4), 493–512.Google Scholar
  15. Harding, H. (1997). The Chinese state in crisis, 1966–1969. In R. MacFarquhar (Ed.), The politics of China: The eras of Mao and Deng (2nd ed., pp. 148–247). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Huang, J. (2000). Factionalism in Chinese Communist politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Jia, R., Kudamatsu, M., & Seim, D. (2015). Political selection in China: The complementary roles of connections and performance. Journal of the European Economic Association, 13(4), 631–668.Google Scholar
  18. Jones, B. F., & Olken, B. A. (2005). Do leaders matter? National leadership and growth since World War II. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120(3), 835–864.Google Scholar
  19. Kung, J. K.-S., & Chen, S. (2011). The tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career incentives and political radicalism during China’s Great Leap Famine. American Political Science Review, 105(1), 27–45.Google Scholar
  20. Landry, P. F. (2008). Decentralized authoritarianism in China: The Communist Party’s control of local elites in the post-Mao era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Lewis, D. E. (2008). The politics of presidential appointments: Political control and bureaucratic performance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Li, C. (2008). From selection to election? Experiments in the recruitment of Chinese political elites. China Leadership Monitor, 26, 6–7.Google Scholar
  23. Li, H., & Zhou, L.-A. (2005). Political turnover and economic performance: the incentive role of personnel control in China. Journal of Public Economics, 89(9–10), 1743–1762.Google Scholar
  24. MacFarquhar, R., & Schoenhals, M. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Myerson, R. B. (2008). The autocrat’s credibility problem and foundations of the constitutional state. American Political Science Review, 102(1), 125–139.Google Scholar
  26. Ouyang, Q. (2008). The PRC’s 1955 awarding of generals and marshals [1955 Gongheguo jiangshuai dashouxian]. Jinan: Yellow River Publisher.Google Scholar
  27. Pepper, S. (1991). Education. In R. MacFarquhar & J. K. Fairbank (Eds.), The Cambridge history of China (Vol. 15, pp. 540–593)., The People’s Republic, Part 2: Revolutions within the Chinese revolution, 1966–1982 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Prendergast, C. (1993). A theory of “yes men”. American Economic Review, 83(4), 757–770.Google Scholar
  29. Prendergast, C., & Topel, R. H. (1996). Favoritism in organizations. Journal of Political Economy, 104(5), 958–978.Google Scholar
  30. Reuter, O. J., & Buckley, N. (2017). Performance incentives under autocracy: Evidence from Russia’s regions.
  31. Reuter, O. J., & Robertson, G. B. (2012). Subnational appointments in authoritarian regimes: Evidence from Russian gubernatorial appointments. Journal of Politics, 74(4), 1023–1037.Google Scholar
  32. Schram, S. R. (1989). The thought of Mao Tse-Tung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Shih, V., Adolph, C., & Liu, M. (2012). Getting ahead in the Communist Party: Explaining the advancement of Central Committee members in China. American Political Science Review, 106(1), 166–187.Google Scholar
  34. Shih, V., Shan, W., & Liu, M. (2010). The Central Committee, past and present: A method of quantifying elite biographies. In A. Carlson, M. E. Gallagher, K. Lieberthal, & M. Manion (Eds.), Contemporary Chinese politics: New sources, methods, and field strategies (pp. 51–68). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Wagner, A. F. (2010). An economic analysis of loyalty and competence. Working Paper.
  36. Wagner, A. F. (2011). Loyalty and competence in public agencies. Public Choice, 146(1–2), 145–162.Google Scholar
  37. Walder, A. G. (2015). China under Mao: A revolution derailed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Xi, T. (2018). All the emperor’s men? Conflicts and power-sharing in imperial China. Comparative Political Studies. Scholar
  39. Zakharov, A. V. (2016). The loyalty–competence trade-off in dictatorships and outside options for subordinates. The Journal of Politics, 78(2), 457–466.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsThe Chinese University of Hong KongShatinHong Kong
  2. 2.Department of Asian and Policy StudiesThe Education University of Hong KongTai PoHong Kong

Personalised recommendations