Comparative Politics
Political Economy

Xu Xu Profile Photo


Book Project





My current research focuses on the politics of information and political repression in autocracies with a particular interest in digital surveillance. My other ongoing projects study the political economy of institutions and development. My work exploits a range of research designs and data sources including survey and natural experiments, archival research, and intensive fieldwork in China.


Chen, Zhiyuan, Xin Jin, and Xu Xu. Forthcoming. “Is a Crackdown on Corruption Really Good for the Economy? Firm-level Evidence From China.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. Link, Online First

We study the impact of anticorruption efforts on firm performance, exploiting an unanticipated corruption crackdown in China’s Heilongjiang province in 2004. We compare firms in the affected regions with those in other inland regions before and after the crackdown. Our main finding is an overall negative impact of the crackdown on firm productivity and entry rates. Further, these negative impacts are mainly experienced by private and foreign firms, while state-owned firms are mostly unaffected. We also present evidence concerning two potential explanations for our findings. First, the corruption crackdown may have limited bribery opportunities employed by private firms. Second, the corruption crackdown may have interfered with personal connections between private firms and government officials to a greater extent than institutional connections between state-owned firms and the government. Overall, our findings suggest that corruption crackdowns may not restore efficiency in the economy, but instead lead to worse economic outcomes, at least in the short run.

Xu, Xu. 2020. “To Repress or To Co-opt? Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance.” American Journal of Political Science. Pre-print, Post-print, Appendix

This paper studies the consequences of digital surveillance in dictatorships. I first develop an informational theory of repression and co-optation. I argue that digital surveillance resolves dictators’ information problem of not knowing individual citizens’ true anti-regime sentiments. By identifying radical opponents, digital surveillance enables dictators to substitute targeted repression for non-exclusive co-optation to forestall coordinated uprisings. My theory implies that as digital surveillance technologies advance, we should observe a rise in targeted repression and a decline in universal redistribution. Using a difference-in-differences design that exploits temporal variation in digital surveillance systems among Chinese counties, I find that surveillance increases local governments’ public security expenditure and arrests of political activists but decreases public goods provision. My theory and evidence suggest that improvements in governments’ information make citizens worse off in dictatorships.

Frantz, Erica, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Joseph Wright, and Xu Xu. 2019. “Personalization of Power and Repression in Dictatorships.” Journal of Politics. Post-print, Appendix, Reproduction Files

This article uses new data measuring gradations of personalism in authoritarian regimes to evaluate the relationship between concentration of power and patterns of repression. It shows that the personalization of power in dictatorships leads to an increase in repression. Given the rise in personalism we are witnessing globally, the findings of this study imply that repression is likely to become more prevalent in dictatorships as a consequence.

Cao, Xun, Genia Kostka, and Xu Xu. 2019. “Environmental Political Business Cycles: The Case of PM2.5 Air Pollution in Chinese Cities.” Environmental Science and Policy. 93: 92-100. Pre-print, Appendix, Slides(2015 APSA)

Chinese local leaders’ behaviors are driven by a career incentive structure in which those delivering better performances are more likely to be promoted. Local leaders signal competence when their superiors actively collect evidence to evaluate their performances: these are years leading to the end of a five-year term. To create better economic performances, local leaders lessen the enforcement of environmental regulations to reduce local industries’ production costs and/or to attract firms from other jurisdictions. Such selective enforcement creates an environmental political business cycle in which pollution increases in years leading to the year of leader turnover. The empirical analysis on a panel of Chinese prefectures of 2002-2010 reveals a U-shaped relationship between a prefecture’s party secretary’s years in office and its average annual PM2.5 level.

Xu, Xu and Xin Jin. 2018. “The Autocratic Roots of Social Distrust.” Journal of Comparative Economics. 46.1: 362-380. Pre-print, Post-print

This paper presents evidence that autocratic culture adversely affects social trust and political participation. We find that individuals whose ancestors migrated from countries with higher autocracy levels are less likely to trust others and to vote in presidential elections in the U.S. The impact of autocratic culture on trust can last for at least three generations while the impact on voting disappears after one generation. These impacts on trust and voting are also significant across Europe. We further access the robustness of our findings concerning selection into migration and other confounders such as home countries’ economic conditions, human capital stocks, and the strength of family ties.


Working Papers

Xu, Xu. “The Social Costs of Digital vs. In-Person Surveillance.” Link

The world is witnessing an explosion of digital surveillance in recent years. This paper examines the social costs of digital surveillance versus in-person surveillance in dictatorships. I argue that both types of surveillance deter political participation because citizens fear targeted repression. However, digital surveillance does not entail human-agent intrusion into private lives and therefore is less likely to undermine interpersonal trust and regime legitimacy than in-person surveillance. I manipulate information about surveillance operations in an in-the-field survey experiment on college students in two regions of China and find supportive evidence. I further establish the external validity of the experimental findings on digital surveillance using a nationally representative survey and a natural experiment caused by the 2015 Tianjin explosion. Overall, the findings that digital surveillance deters political participation without some of the costly byproducts of in-person surveillance have board implications for surveillance in dictatorships and even in democracies.

Jin, Xin and Xu Xu. “Incentivizing Corruption: The Unintended Consequence of Bureaucratic Promotions in China.” Link.

Conventional wisdom holds that in non-democracies, a strong central state can reward and punish local administrations through a merit-based promotion system, which should restrain corruption. But much evidence shows that rampant corruption coexists with powerful central governments. This study resolves this puzzle by incorporating bribes in a tournament model. Our model predicts that when bribes are more important than performance in superiors’ total gain, or if there is a lack of serious punishments for wrong-doing, or an increase in promotion gain, promotion can incentivize corruption. Using a fuzzy regression discontinuity design exploiting exogenous variations in officials’ likelihood of promotion from a mandatory age cutoff for bureaucratic promotion in China, combined with a unique biographical database of prefecture party secretaries and novel measures of corruption, we find that promotions encourage corruption in China. Moreover, prefecture party secretaries are more corrupt if their provincial superiors are connected to central factions, suggesting that upper-level factionalism is one of the disincentives that breaks down lower-level meritocracy.