China’s Anticorruption Campaign Adds Popular Culture Entertainment Into its Toolbox

A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.

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Do People Care More About Corruption Than They Used To? Evidence from the US and Germany

Sometimes it feels like corruption has become the topic of the year: We’ve heard repeatedly that it is (the perception of) corrupt elites that has fueled the rise of populists, nationalists, and new socialist parties and politicians. The most prominently of these, though not the only one, is Donald Trump, who promised in his campaign to take back power from the corrupt elites (see here and here).

But has the topic of corruption actually become increasingly prominent in popular and media discourse over the last two years? To investigate this question, I did a simple search on the Factiva database within the eight most widely-circulated American newspapers (USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Newsday) for the term “corruption.” I did a similar search for Germany, using the term “Korruption” and the eight most widely-circulated German newspapers (BILD, BILD am Sonntag, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Rheinische Post, Welt am Sonntag and Rheinische Post). Surprisingly (at least to me), over the last two years there was no growth in U.S. newspaper reporting on corruption. As the following graph shows, reporting on corruption in the U.S. has been rather stable over this period, with between 500 and 750 articles a month. A slightly different picture emerges for Germany, where newspaper reports on corruption, which were substantially less frequent than in the U.S. to begin with, have actually declined over the past two years. (A side note, though perhaps an interesting one: The most reported corruption topic in both countries, with about 2.5 times more stories than the next-most-mentioned topic, was FIFA.): Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

Low-cost video, and easier video distribution, simple though it sounds, is emerging as one of the premier corruption-fighting tools. This is especially true for small countries with poor track records in public integrity. Consider Cambodia. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year rule has been rife with graft, cronyism, land grabbing, and political violence, the government has been able to keep the extent of this hidden from most of the Cambodian public. Yet video and video-sharing services have proved one form of protest that the reigning government cannot seem to quash.

The most recent video to provoke the ire of the ruling party has low production values and little action. Three men sit at a table, one talking for the majority of the eight-minute run time about a Global Witness report’s allegations of extreme nepotism and cronyism within the ruling family. The man speaking, Kem Ley, was an opposition politician who was assassinated in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store just two days after his remarks. Many commentators immediately suspected the killing was political; these statements themselves spurred lawsuits from the ruling party. Multiple YouTube versions of the video now have several hundred thousand views each, with video news stories covering the killing tallying hundreds of thousands more. Kem’s funeral procession brought out droves of Cambodians, some reports numbering the crowd at two million (in a country of around 15 million people).

Another recent video about an anticorruption campaigner has become extremely popular despite—or perhaps because of—the government’s best efforts to stop it. The video’s subject, Chut Wutty, worked to expose illegal logging in Cambodian forests, logging that often happened with police complicity or direct participation. While accompanying journalists to show them the extent of the illegal deforestation, Wutty was shot and killed by a police officer. The low-budget documentary about his life and death was released this spring. Banned by the government, the film also quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gathered plenty of attention.

In a country with state-controlled media, sparse internet connectivity, and extreme poverty, the exposure to corruption-exposing video is ad hoc but growing. Videos like these hold promise for the future of the long-struggling country for several reasons:

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Culture Matters: How Indonesia Should Account Culture to Eradicate Corruption

Corruption in Indonesia is endemic, permeating all levels of society. As I argued in my last post, Indonesia’s culture of corruption is a result of the corruption of culture: Far too many people see corruption as unsolvable and even “normal,” even though they clearly realize its wrongfulness.

To date, Indonesia’s independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, has pursued a main strategy of prosecuting the “big fish”—the high-ranking officials (including numerous parliament members and powerful politicians) whose corrupt behavior has caused massive damage to the country. Laudable though the KPK’s bold enforcement efforts have been, eradicating corruption requires more than prosecutions. Rather, the KPK needs to complement its aggressive law enforcement with preventive measures designed to change Indonesia’s “culture of corruption” to a “culture of anticorruption.” There are several strategies the KPK could pursue to foster such cultural change:

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Invalid Instrumental Variables in Corruption Research: A Lament

A while back, I posted a critical commentary on Paulo Mauro’s widely-cited paper purporting to show that corruption lowers foreign investment and growth. My criticisms focused on Mauro’s use of a statistical technique called “instrumental variables” (or “IV”) analysis, which — when done properly — can help figure out whether a hypothesized explanatory variable actually causes an outcome of interest, or whether instead the observed statistical correlation is due to the fact that the alleged outcome variable actually influences the proposed explanatory variable (“endogeneity” or “reverse causation”).  But an IV analysis requires making certain strong and untestable assumptions about the relationships between the variables.  If those assumptions are wrong, the conclusions one draws about causation will be unsound (not necessarily wrong, but not worthy of credence on the basis of the analysis).

This may seem like an issue that only stats nerds should care about, but I actually think it’s important that other researchers, activists, and policy advisers understand the basics of the technique and how it can go wrong (or be misused).  I say this because a surprisingly large amount of the research on the causes and consequences of corruption — research that is often cited, individually or collectively, in discussions of what to do about corruption — relies on this technique. And, I hate to say it, but much of that research uses IV analysis that is clearly inappropriate.

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently because I’ve been going through the literature on the relationship between democracy and corruption for a paper I’m writing, and this issue crops up a lot in that literature. But I’ve seen essentially the same problems in lots of other research on corruption’s causes and consequences, so I’m reasonably confident that this is not an isolated problem.

Let me say a bit more about the essence of the statistical problem, how IV analysis is supposed to solve it, and why much of the IV analysis I’ve seen (focusing on the democracy-corruption context) is not worthy of credence: Continue reading

Uses and Abuses of Anticorruption Tactics in the Gambia

The tiny African country of the Gambia rarely receives international media attention.  Perhaps once a year, shocking statements from its president, Yahya Jammeh, might win it a small news blurb, but even then, these stories tend to be treated in a perfunctory, “look at this wacko human rights abuser” manner: reporting something awful or absurd—like his declaration that LGBT people are “vermin”, or that he has developed a cure for AIDS—but doing so in a derisive or condescending tone. A headline like “Five Crazy Things About Gambia’s Jammeh” is fairly typical.  (The latest zaniness-oriented reporting has been centered on an incredibly poorly planned attempted coup by two Gambian-Americans against whom the U.S. Department of Justice just filed charges.)

However, such gawking, hit-and-run style reportage overlooks the very real, very sinister way that Jammeh has solidified his hold on power by co-opting the language of anticorruption as a rhetorical tool to justify his tenure, and by using purported anticorruption crackdowns as a weapon to eliminate his opponents.  By utilizing the language of anticorruption advocates, and selectively throwing certain members of the government to the wolves while perpetually tossing the (anticorruption) book at his political opponents, Jammeh has managed to create the myth that his administration is at least relatively committed to fighting corruption, and is the best hope for the Gambia to pursue economic development.

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