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  • Cited by 9
Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
August 2021
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Book description

Against the backdrop of rising populism around the world and democratic backsliding in countries with robust, multiparty elections, this book asks why ordinary people favor authoritarian leaders. Much of the existing scholarship on illiberal regimes and authoritarian durability focuses on institutional explanations, but Tsai argues that, to better understand these issues, we need to examine public opinion and citizens' concerns about retributive justice. Government authorities uphold retributive justice - and are viewed by citizens as fair and committed to public good - when they affirm society's basic values by punishing wrongdoers who act against these values. Tsai argues that the production of retributive justice and moral order is a central function of the state and an important component of state building. Drawing on rich empirical evidence from in-depth fieldwork, original surveys, and innovative experiments, the book provides a new framework for understanding authoritarian resilience and democratic fragility.


‘In this brilliant study, Lily Tsai explores one of the most disturbing questions of our day: why do citizens – in democracies and autocracies alike – find authoritarian leadership appealing? Drawing on original data from China, Tsai points to the yearning for retributive justice. Discomfiting though it may be, her answer is of interest to anyone seeking the roots of authoritarianism in uncertain times.’Elizabeth J. Perry, Harvard University

‘Answering the simple question of why authoritarian leaders appeal to many, Tsai provides us with an important and uncomfortable answer. Combining theory with a deep empirical study of China, she shows that many citizens care deeply about retributive justice and will support leaders who provide a safe, stable social order. This brilliant study resonates far beyond China to help explain why even in established democracies there can be a yearning for a strong ruler who will set wrongs to right.’Anthony J. Saich, Harvard Kennedy School

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