We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence, published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for East Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
How do dictators stay in power? When, and how, do they use repression to do so? Dictators and their Secret Police explores the role of the coercive apparatus under authoritarian rule in Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines – how these secret organizations originated, how they operated, and how their violence affected ordinary citizens. Greitens argues that autocrats face a coercive dilemma: whether to create internal security forces designed to manage popular mobilization, or defend against potential coup. Violence against civilians, she suggests, is a byproduct of their attempt to resolve this dilemma. Drawing on a wealth of new historical evidence, this book challenges conventional wisdom on dictatorship: what autocrats are threatened by, how they respond, and how this affects the lives and security of the millions under their rule. It offers an unprecedented view into the use of surveillance, coercion, and violence, and sheds new light on the institutional and social foundations of authoritarian power.
We thank Professor Greitens for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove her project.
How did you become interested in the subject of dictatorships and the ways in which they form their coercive apparatuses?
I first became interested in the politics of dictatorship on a trip to South Korea in 2002. We visited the DMZ, and I remember being struck that the Cold War wasn’t over on the Korean peninsula. My earliest memory of anything international was of watching the Berlin Wall fall on TV, and I wanted to understand why that hadn’t happened in East Asia.
I found that political scientists had written a lot about the quasi-democratic features of dictatorship: why authoritarian political systems have parties, legislatures, elections, and courts. It seemed that this approach left out something important: the role of coercion, repression, and violence – things that, for most of us, are at the heart of dictatorship. Yet there was no good explanation for the role that those organizations play in non-democracies. In the book, I provide the first comparative, systematic examination of the coercive apparatus: its origins, its operation, and its effect on ordinary people. The book explains why different autocrats design their coercive institutions differently, and why these institutions subsequently engage in distinctive – and sometimes surprising – patterns of state violence.
What led you to focus your research on three Asian countries: Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines?
These cases made sense for a number of reasons. First, they had different patterns of state violence, but a lot of the factors that we think influence repression were constant across the cases and over time. All four regimes were anti-communist in ideology, were aligned with the US at similar periods during the Cold War, and faced increasing popular mobilization and opposition over time. The most prominent explanations for state violence predicted that these cases should look alike – yet they displayed really different temporal, cross-national, and even sub-national patterns of state violence. There was a real puzzle to explain.
Having multiple cases, especially of different regime types, also helped address questions about whether the book’s argument worked outside of East Asia. The final chapter looks at cases in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, and shows that similar dynamics occur in these regions as well.
There were also some good practical reasons. Our mental templates for understanding the world’s non-democratic polities are largely region-based: Eastern European communism, Latin American military rule, Middle Eastern petro-states, and African personalist dictatorships. Asian authoritarianism is relatively understudied, and I thought a study of these regimes would make a valuable contribution, both to East Asia’s Cold War history and to our understanding of worldwide political violence.
And finally, the project was possible in East Asia; it wouldn’t have been in a lot of other places. The threat perceptions of dictators and the operations of authoritarian secret police are topics where data is often highly restricted, making research difficult. But in the countries where I did fieldwork, the timing was right: democratization in the 1980s made it possible to get a lot of new documentary evidence and conduct a number of interviews to get at the actual mechanisms driving state violence: the threat perceptions of dictators and the incentives and intelligence capacity of the various coercive agencies.
After comparing the authoritarian regimes in Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, what conclusions did you draw about the reasons that dictatorships may use certain forms of coercion over others?
Big-picture, I argue that the way the coercive apparatus is organized matters a lot for the kind of repression and violence that ordinary people experience.
Autocrats who want to stay in power face a coercive dilemma: whether to create internal security forces that are designed to deal with the challenge of popular mobilization, or to create forces that are designed to defend against a potential coup. If a dictator is worried about an elite or coup threat, he tends to create fragmented, exclusive organizations, but if he’s worried about popular uprisings, his organizations should be unitary and inclusive. The book argues that autocrats’ initial threat perceptions – which can be pretty idiosyncratic – determine the design of the coercive apparatus.
Those institutional choices, then, are what subsequently shape the violence used against citizens. A fragmented and socially exclusive coercive apparatus will have intelligence handicaps and professional incentives that predispose them toward higher levels of and less discriminate violence, especially over time. That’s why we see, for example, that violence dropped in Taiwan over the course of the 1950s, but rose steadily in the Philippines under Marcos.
What kinds of sources and materials did you consult when researching this book? What challenges did you encounter when finding evidence about these regimes?
The biggest challenge was that secret police organizations are, quite literally, secret. Doing fieldwork in countries that had democratized made the project possible, but finding materials was still a challenge. The book draws on a wide range of primary source materials, including the diaries of the various autocrats and papers from the intelligence and security agencies. To fill in gaps, triangulate perspectives, and verify the accuracy of the documents collected during fieldwork, I drew on two other sets of sources. The first were American archival records, generated by the close security relationships that these countries had with the United States during the Cold War. Second, I interviewed over 140 people for the project from political prisoners to people who’d worked inside the coercive apparatus – military officers in Taiwan, policemen in Korea, intelligence officials in the Philippines, etc. The interviews were important for helping me understand whether what was recorded on paper reflected what people were actually doing and experiencing on a day-to-day basis when it came to surveillance and repression.
Did any of your findings surprise you or challenge some of your initial assumptions about dictatorships and the use of state violence?
Yes, absolutely. There’s a paradox in authoritarian violence: the regimes that are most afraid of their people end up using less violence against them in the long run. That happens because an autocrat who takes the threat of popular revolution seriously at the beginning designs his whole coercive apparatus to deter and pre-empt popular mobilization. In these organizations – like the East German Stasi or the coercive apparatus on Taiwan – intelligence becomes a substitute and a guiding hand for violence; citizens relinquish their privacy, but less often forfeit their lives. It makes sense, but it was the opposite of the conventional wisdom when I began.
I also found that some dictators are more sophisticated than we think. Rather than just blindly cracking down, autocrats often think more strategically, focus more on institutional creation, adopt longer time horizons, and seek more deterrent and pre-emptive capabilities than we give them credit for – and that’s why we get the unexpected relationship between threat and violence that I describe in the book.
How might your research help people understand and negotiate with dictatorships that exist today?
I think we’ve generally underestimated how much authoritarian regimes can differ from one another, and as a result, we haven’t had a very clear understanding of how autocrats think and strategize to stay in power. The book tries to understand how autocrats view the world around them, and to probe some of the most fundamental tools that they use to prolong their rule and ensure their survival. Understanding the fundamental incentives that shape behavior inside these regimes is, I think, the first step toward coming up with policies to deal with them.
What is your next research project going to be about?
My next project is about what happens to people who are born and raised under dictatorship when they become citizens in a democracy. It’s focused on the resettlement of North Korean defectors and refugees. Right now, you can find a lot of stories about life inside North Korea, and about the harrowing ways people escape, but far less about what it means to create a new life in a modern, democratic society like South Korea – or the United States or Great Britain or countries in Europe, where there are now small communities of resettled North Korean refugees. The project will explore how changing conceptions of citizenship shape both the policies of resettlement, and individual resettlers’ understandings of political community, welfare politics, and civic and political participation.