Determinants of political purges in autocracies: Evidence from ancient Chinese dynasties

Stan Hok Wui Wong, Kelvin Chun Man Chan

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Why would dictators purge members of their ruling coalition? Some argue that doing so can minimize the risk to dictators’ political survival, while others contend that dictators who mount purges are motivated by the desire to share resources with fewer allies. In this study, we analyze an original dataset, compiled from biographical data on the subordinates of the founding emperors of seven ancient Chinese imperial dynasties. Analyzing the data with competing risks models, we find that military experience is a strong predictor of political purges. Emperors were less likely to execute officers who had fought in more battles, but more likely to execute commanders, especially those who had established military credentials prior to the founding of an empire. In addition, the incidence of political purges heightened toward the end of an emperor’s life, which implies that the founding emperors were concerned about the security threats against their designated successors. Potential challengers came not only from the military, but also from the aristocracy. Indeed, we find that the blood relatives of the emperors were more likely to experience a mild form of purges: deprivation of titles. These findings suggest that dictators are more likely to use purges to reduce existential threats.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
JournalJournal of Peace Research
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2020


  • ancient China
  • authoritarian politics
  • military
  • political dynasty
  • political purges

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Safety Research
  • Political Science and International Relations

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