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Knowing yourself, knowing your enemy: Factional Clarity and Elite Purges in Authoritarian Regimes

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Dictators initiate elite purges to count threats of coups and mass protests; at the same time, purges vary in frequency, timing, and intensity, even across regimes with similar institutions and survival threats. The dissertation proposes a theory of factional clarity to explain such variations. Factional clarity, the extent to which visible elites can accurately infer individual memberships in factions, influences elites' ability to distinguish allies from enemies and estimate the balance of power between factions. This in turn mediates their willingness to purge, as well as the strategy they use to protect allies from purges.

Factional clarity is endogenous to elite conflicts, yet also diverges across regimes and over time in response to exogenous shocks. I demonstrates this divergence through a comparative analysis of the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Party. In China, Kuomintang and Japanese offensives led to the creation of isolated Communist factions with membership based on visible geographical and professional ties. In contrast, repeated destruction of the southern revolutionary network by French and American-South Vietnamese forces homogenized Vietnamese Communist Party elites and made these ties irrelevant. I show that periods of high and low purge intensity in both regimes followed those of high and low factional clarity, respectively, and that factional clarity dictated purge initiators’ behaviors during two historical purges, the Gao-Rao Affair in China and the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair in Vietnam.

Using original data on recent disciplinary investigations in China and Vietnam, I then argue that factional clarity also affects the degree and form of political protection during purges. In China, where factions have clear membership, regime leaders engage in ex post protection by intervening in ongoing investigations of officials in localities with ties to them. In contrast, under Vietnam’s opaque factionalism, leaders prevent these officials from being targeted for investigations ex ante.

My findings unify bodies of literature on factionalism, elite networks, and political identities, and provide a framework to analyze authoritarian intra-elite violence. They also open an avenue for future research to explore the role of elite purges---and of factional clarity as a key mediator---on corruption, growth, as well as authoritarian legitimacy.

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This item is under embargo until December 21, 2023.