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Terrorism in autocracy, differences between single-party and multi-party rule; a Chinese-Russian comparison.


Taking the People’s Republic of China (Hereafter PRC) and the Russia Federation (Hereafter RF) as examples of single-party rule and multi-party rule respectively this essay will explore the effects of authoritarian regime type in reducing and deterring terrorism. By examining the theoretical structure of these two regimes this essay will explain the differences in volume of terrorism experienced by both regimes. Employing the selectorate theory and the theory of audience costs alongside empirical examples this essay will demonstrate that the single party rule employed by the PRC is favourable to that of the multiparty rule employed by the RF in reducing and deterring terrorism.


The motivation for this essay came about from the reading of Conrad et al 2014

 and Wilson and Piazza 2013, in both arguments outline the effects of authoritarian rule in deterring and reducing terrorism. However, neither of the two readings attempted to employ the selectorate theory or audience costs in explaining the differential between regime type and terrorist volume and neither attempted to contrast single-party and multi-party rule directly. This essay by no means attempts to conclude the debate on regime type and terrorist incident but will briefly explore two interesting theories in autocratic politics and the effect they have on two interesting states. The PRC and the RF were selected as examples of single-party and multi-party rule not just for their status and popularity but for a number of reasons. Primarily what sparked my interest was the graphic comparison outlined in Phillip B. K. Potter’s 2013 paper between Chinese and Russian terrorist incidents attached. The contrast between the RF and PRC despite their similar autocratic rule styles presented an anomaly to me that was not explained by either Wilson et al’s paper or Conrad et al’s paper. This essay will attempt to explain the differential observable in this graph.


Comparing the PRC and the RF will be aided by the similarities they share in terms of regime type, autocratic, geography, over 9 million square kilometres, history, communist regimes, and finally domestic terrorism. The Uyghur separatist movement of Xinjiang and the Chechnyan nationalists of Chechnya share many similarities in terms of background and beliefs. This will allow the essay to compare two large, previously communist, superpowers dealing with a domestic terrorist threat vying for independence from the state. The comparison obviously has limits and variables that are difficult to control. Differences in foreign policy during the 20th and 21st century are stark and this has a large effect on creating incentives for terrorism. Russian foreign policy was relatively more aggressive in the middle east during this time period therefore a higher amount of Islamic terrorism should be expected and taken into consideration when assessing my analysis. Information asymmetry also provides a limit to this question as before 1980 data on domestic terrorism in the PRC is difficult to attain. (Potter, 2013) Despite these challenges this essay will provide a critical, theoretical and empirical approach to providing analyses on counterterrorism in autocratic regimes. For the purpose of this essay terrorism tactics and counterterrorism policy will also cover insurgency tactics and counterinsurgency policy.

The Selectorate Theory

The primary difference between the multiparty rule of the RF and the single party rule of the PRC can be seen in the accountability they are held to within their own borders. This essay will argue that the differences in the selectorate of each state contributes to the differences in the amount of terrorism each state receives and by using the selectorate theory it can be observed that the PRC’s relatively small selectorate acts as a deterrent to domestic terrorism.

The selectorate theory was coined by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al in their ground-breaking paper; ‘policy failures and political survival: the contribution of political institutions.’ In it they create a political theory based on political institutions that can be used to ascertain the political survival of a regime, either democratic or autocratic. The selectorate theory mechanisms, put simply, involves establishing a ratio between the selectorate and the winning coalition. The selectorate are the enfranchised citizens, in Ireland this is everyone registered to vote and over the age of 18. The wining coalition is the amount of the selectorate needed to maintain power, in a presidential election in Ireland this would be the majority of voters. It is also largely assumed that citizens not in the model, the disenfranchised, are to be considered irrelevant.  A large selectorate and a small winning coalition will lead to a strong leadership as those in the winning coalition can be easily replaced by members of the selectorate. A large selectorate and a large winning coalition would lead to a weak leadership as the leader must conform to the winning coalition’s desires for fear of losing them to defection. (Mesquita, 2005) The selectorate theory can be applied to many decision making scenarios , in this essay the selectorate theory will be used to explain why the RF multiparty autocracy is more likely to experience terrorism than the single party autocracy of the PRC.

The Selectorate theory applied to the PRC and the RF

This essay will argue that the PRC has a smaller selectorate and smaller still winning coalition than that of the RF. It is this small selectorate that makes the PRC less vulnerable to terrorism than that of the RF. It is difficult to quantify precisely the selectorate of an autocracy (Gallagher, M. E., & Hanson, J. K. (2015) however the political scientist Susan L. Shirks in The political logic of economic reform in China estimates that the current Chinese selectorate is only some 500 members or less. The selectorate in the PRC consists of a selection of members of the central communist committee, revolutionary leaders and certain top military leaders. (Shirk, S. L. 1993) Through this group the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are selected. (Shih, V., Adolph, C., & Liu, M. 2012) The minute selectorate is in contrast to the current political set up in the RF. Putin’s multi-party autocracy is a complex and consistently evolving. While democratic institutions are being steadily eroded since Yeltsin’s departure (Sakwa, R. 2011) the selectorate for establishing leadership in the RF is still much larger than that of the PRC. The United Russian Party still has to compete in the state Duma with the communist party of the Russian federation, a Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. United Russia’s selectorate can be seen as a mix of the politically participating public and Russian oligarchs.  The winning coalition consists of a majority of influential oligarchs and their military allies and a large portion of the public but not necessarily a majority. (Bormann, N., Eichernauer, V. Z., & Hug, S. 2016) This is a similar set up to that of the PRC however the variance and magnitude of these oligarchs makes the RF’s selectorate much larger and much more complex. The RF winning coalition is also threatened by the 3 aforementioned rival parties of the State Duma. The oligarchs in the winning coalition are for the most part extremely wealthy and autonomous and therefore will align themselves with an authoritarian ruler that can provide stability and security. (Sakwa, R. 2011)

The philosophy behind terrorism is defined by its asymmetry to its adversary. A terrorist would look to inflict maximum impact at minimal effort. Impact to a terrorist  can be quantified in many different ways however for the purpose of this essay impact will be defined as bringing about political change. Whether that be the tightening  of domestic security, declaring war or a political reshuffle, these are all effects that terrorists seek. (Wilson, M. C., & Piazza, J. A. 2013; Abrahms, 2008) Logically, acts of terror would rarely be carried out in areas where change is not a possibility, where there would be no impact. This is why the PRC’s single-party rule is favourable to that of the RF’s multi-party rule in deterring terrorism. The PRC’s small selectorate and winning coalition creates this deterrent. By consolidating their power and popularity from the Chinese public opinion they have protected their entire state from the perils of terrorism. In a strange paradox, the PRC’s ambivalence to the suffering of their domestic population from events in Xinjiang has protected the populace as whole. The interests of the PRC’s selectorate is largely economic  or around power consolidation. (Stern, G. 1978) Their selectorate is less inclined to react to violent incidences in Xinjiang. The RF’s large winning coalition and selectorate makes the RF far more sensitive to the effects of a terrorist attack, thus in turn incentivising a terrorist attack on its soil. Many of Russia’s oligarch’s have  interests in Chechnya’s oil (P. L. Dash, 1995). This pushes the selectorate and the winning coalition to become more responsive to  terrorist activity in the region. The RF have not been able to insulate themselves as the PRC have and therefore the RF has become a more attractive target for terrorism. This essay would argue that were the RF to transform into a single party rule as it had been under the Soviet Union then the concentration of the selectorate and the winning coalition would be greatly reduced as is the case in the PRC. The subsequent ‘market’ for terrorist activity would arguably decrease. Historical terrorism rates during the Soviet era could be treated as a counterfactual to the current multi-party system however controlling for the effects of the cold war and higher state control would prove difficult.

Audience costs

The Selectorate theory can help to explain a large portion of how single party versus multi party configuration can work as deterrents to terrorism. However, when terrorism does occur states must respond in some form of capacity. This essay will argue that it is the single-party’s ability to reduce audience costs that gives the PRC a more favourable position than multi-party systems when dealing with terrorist incidences.

Audience costs are the costs that are incurred by leaders of both democracies and autocracies as punishment for failing to confront threats to their authority. For audience costs to occur the domestic political audience must have the capacity to punish the political leader for backing down from a threat. (Weeks, 2008) The domestic group involved in audience costs is not necessarily the public, previously this could have been “kings, rural ministers opposition politicians, senate committees, politburos, and since the mid nineteenth century mass publics informed by mass media.” (Fearon, 1994, p.581). This essay would argue that the higher the audience cost, the greater the impact of terror on a nation state. The single-party rule of the PRC is better equipped to reduce its audience costs than that of the multi-party rule of the RF. This is because of the PRC’s greater capacity to reduce the power of the media in its own borders, thus severing the tie between the public and information. This reduces the incentives for terrorism and acts as a deterrent to future attacks. The RF has a looser grip on its media, this allows for the creation of a better informed public thus increasing the RF’s audience costs. This creates an incentive to terrorism. The paper Tyrants and terrorism; why some autocrats are terrorized while others are not- Conrad et al hypothesized that greater audience costs leads to a higher rate of terror. (Conrad et al., 2014) However, Conrad et al does not sufficiently differentiate between single-party and multi-party autocracies in their paper. This section will argue that the single party rule employed by the PRC is superior to that of the multi-party rule of the RF in reducing audience costs and thus reducing the incentives for terrorism.

Audience costs applied to the PRC and the RF

Chinese control of the media is well renowned as being one of the strictest in the world. (King et al., 2013) Despite increasing liberalization over the past 30 years China still remains well equipped to observe and control its own citizens. (Potter, P. 2013). The aptly named ‘great firewall of China’ demotes China to 187th in the world in terms of global press freedom within 197 countries. (House, F. 2012) The constricting control of the media has been well documented, its intentions to restrict political co-ordination reveal state policy to prevent an organised opposition. (King et al., 2013) This essay would add to King et al’s hypothesis by arguing that the PRC wishes to reduce information concerning terrorism in the Xinjiang region, thus severing the public connection to information and therefore reducing the audience costs to terrorism at the hands of the Uyghurs. This argument has been outlined logically and now will be supported empirically. In the aftermath to the August 2008 attack on some 70 police in Kashgar during the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, China’s deadliest attack since the 1990s (Wong, 2008). In the week following the attack the Chinese government and state media made many attempts to suppress the information from spreading domestically in China. As part of these efforts local police detained and beat international journalists reporting on the incident (C.P.J., 2008). Despite the public appetite for information on domestic terrorist incidences like these many go unreported. (Potter, 2013) This creates the separation between the public and information relating to threats to authority and allows the PRC to respond to terror without inducing audience costs that restrict their choice of responses.

Russian media is certainly not considered free by any standards either, ranked 172nd in the world, just ahead of China. (House, 2012) They do not however have the ability to control reports of terrorism to the extent that the PRC does. A lack of control over the ‘new media’ has increased public awareness over attacks on Russian soil along with pressure from other parties within Russia’s multiparty system such as the social democrats of ‘A Just Russia’ who have put pressure on the RF to reduce state control of the media. (March, L. 2009) This essay would argue that the RF’s autocracy would prefer a system whereby they could reduce coverage of terrorist incidences in order to maintain the ability to respond or not respond. However, their multiparty system means that audience costs are high and this is no longer an option. The Chechnyan attack in Beslan in 2004 and subsequent aftermath provide empirical evidence of the RF’s lack of control over media outlets and the effect of a high audience cost on RF policy. The televised coverage  surrounding the attack led to a huge audience cost for the RF as domestic outcry called for immediate responses to the Chechnyan threat.   (Snetkov, 2007) The RF’s response for this terrorist incident can be summarised by Putin’s statement ; “We showed ourselves to be weak, and the weak get beaten.” The RF subsequently tightened security and increased the powers of the law enforcement and federal government (Steele, J. 2004). These measures can be seen as impacts of terrorism, impacts that are consequence of the multi-party system’s audience costs.


This discussion shall finish here, without being under the illusion that this essay has listed all the necessary arguments for as to why certain autocratic systems incur greater terrorist incidences or coming close to proving the theoretical elements of this argument., but in the hope of having provided a coherent and plausible argument as to factors that deter or attract terrorism unique to certain regimes. This essay has utilised logic and theory to highlight two key factors, the selectorate and audience costs, that can contribute to differentials in terrorist frequency between autocratic regimes. Aside from logic and theory, certain empirical examples in the PRC and the RF have been utilised to support the argument. However, this essay would welcome further econometric study into the correlation between single-party regimes and terrorist incidences versus the correlation between multi-party regimes and terrorist incidences which would control for variables such as geographic location and inter-state conflict. This would add much needed empirical backing to the arguments laid out in this essay.


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