In This Review

When People Want Punishment: Retributive Justice and the Puzzle of Authoritarian Popularity
When People Want Punishment: Retributive Justice and the Puzzle of Authoritarian Popularity
By Lily L. Tsai
Cambridge University Press, 2021, 278 pp.

Many students of China have analyzed the sources of popular support for the authoritarian regime in Beijing. To the usual list of causes—economic performance, propaganda, nationalism, and culture—Tsai adds a new explanation: anticorruption campaigns, she argues, buttress the regime’s popularity because people want to see the enemies of the social order punished. The theory is attractive, even if her data leave some ambiguity about whether the wish for punishment is driven by a moral conviction or just a pragmatic preference for good government. Beyond China, she shows that authoritarian movements everywhere feed on the promise to punish perceived enemies of the social good. One wishes Tsai had compared the weight of this moral outrage with other factors that previous scholars have linked to regime support. And some readers will wonder whether a regime can get just as much public approval by promising to punish external enemies as it gets from targeting domestic malefactors.