Why Dictatorships Build Stuff that Crumbles

In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, James Traub gazes longingly at “the astonishing building and infrastructure projects that have propelled the growth of China’s cities—bullet trains, highways, ports, and giant manufacturing complexes.” He acknowledges that China’s urban development model is “brutal,” but he contends that “the new Chinese cities will be more effective than Western ones at generating wealth, as well as at the basic urban business of moving people rapidly, cleanly, and safely from here to there. And they will be new!”

We read this trope about authoritarian states as tough but effective modernizers a lot, but the real story is more complicated. The same day Traub’s essay appeared in Foreign Policy, the New York Times ran a story about a 330-foot section of bridge in the Chinese city of Harbin that collapsed just nine months after it was built, killing three and injuring five. As the story notes, this was the sixth major bridge collapse in China in the past year, and the high-speed trains that seem to inspire so much envy abroad have suffered similar safety problems.

We hear echoes of these stories from other dictatorships. In the 2000s, Angola was one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, and a lot of people were stunned to hear not long ago that money is now flowing from Angola into its former colonizer, Portugal. In a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday, Rafael de Marques Moraes describes how that country’s oil-rich regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade on massive construction projects that have literally fallen apart not long after they were completed.

The…roads, hospitals and schools began to crack as fast as they were being built. Luanda’s General Hospital had to be shut down in June 2010, when bricks started to fall from the walls, threatening it with imminent collapse. Newly tarred roads were washed away after one rainy season.

If dictators are supposed to be so good at building things, why does so much of what they build fall apart?

The explanation we often hear about the persistence of authoritarian rule in China or Angola or Russia or any number of other non-democratic regimes focuses on the relationship between rulers and citizens at large. Modernization theory leads us to expect countries to become more democratic as their economies grow and their societies become wealthier, more urbanized, and better educated, but, as China shows, that doesn’t always happen.

So, in a kind of addendum to modernization theory, we’re told that these transitions have been forestalled by an implicit social contract between rulers and subjects. The regime supplies an improving standard of living and the infrastructure on which it hangs, and citizens stay quiet in return. Instead of producing the predicted pressures to reform, economic growth conveys “performance legitimacy” on the authoritarian rulers who oversee it, at least temporarily, and the transition to democracy is deferred until the economy slumps and that bargain comes undone.

If performance legitimacy is the pillar on which authoritarian rule depends, then these collapsing bridges and melting roads are major screw-ups, and they really shouldn’t happen. In fact, performance legitimacy could be part of what keeps authoritarian regimes alive, but it’s certainly not the whole story. As Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, and Morrow highlight in their work on the logic of political survival, another and arguably more important set of exchanges is routinely occurring between political leaders and the smaller circle of military, business, and social elites on whom their rule more directly depends.

In this version of the world, it turns out that massive infrastructure projects are not just about supplying public goods to keep citizens happy. They are also—maybe mostly—about giving cronies ways to launder big loans that are really more like political payoffs than social spending. By spending large portions of those loans on improving real estate they’ve often seized from hapless citizens, the cronies get to inflate the value of their assets while distributing shares of the loot to a bunch of people on whose support their influence depends.

If authoritarian rulers were serious about upholding a social contract with their citizens, they would write strong building codes and establish effective inspection regimes that would protect these big investments. But they don’t. Instead of trying to make their citizens happy, dictators spend their money on monitoring and repression meant to keep angry citizens down. They aren’t benevolent but brutal modernizers constructing a better future for their grateful subjects; they’re mafia bosses oiling the machinery that keeps them alive and well fed. These guys aren’t investing in public well-being; they’re investing in political loyalty.

In democracies, where journalists can snoop around, bureaucrats can blow whistles, and politicians can routinely lose their jobs if most voters don’t like what they’re doing, elected officials have stronger incentives to supply public goods, and that includes things like making sure the infrastructure they build doesn’t fail. In this environment, you’re more likely to hear stories like this one from my home state a few days ago, where a major commuting artery was shut down for a day because workers saw unusual movement in a bridge span and state inspectors needed time to check it out.

From this perspective, it’s easier to see that the absence of mass mobilization in these regimes owes more to the challenges of organizing collective action under the thumb of a powerfully repressive regime than to any lack of motivation. China has reportedly experienced tens of thousands of protests and riots each year for years, and anti-government demonstrations have recently swelled in Angola as well. Clearly, not everyone’s signing on to this supposed social contract.

The fact is, these regimes survive in spite of all this unrest, not because unrest is absent. The major barrier to change isn’t citizen satisfaction. Instead, it’s the repressive state that makes it extremely difficult for frustrated citizens to transform all of those atomized events into the kind of broad and sustained movement it takes to push a deeply entrenched set of elites off of their well-defended perches.

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