Do the citizens have a role in constraining policies in autocratic governments? Usually the political and economic literature model autocracy as if the citizens have no role in constraining leader’s behavior, but actually autocratic government are afraid of possible citizens’ revolts. In this paper we focus on contemporary China to analyze how citizens might induce an autocratic government to adopt congruent policies. Although there is no party or electoral competition, the leader fears deposition by coup d’etat of the selectorate and revolutionary threats from citizens. We build a three player political agency model to study the role of both these constraints and we show that the effectiveness of the selectorate and of revolutionary threats are crucial factors in determining the policy outcomes. In particular, we show that the citizens can effectively discipline the leader because of the revolution threat notwithstanding the selectorate size, but this may result in a failed state when the costs of revolting and the selectorate size are small. As the size of the selectorate and the costs of revolution vary dramatically across countries, our result explain why different types of autocracies arise. In particular our model and results provide a useful framework to interpret China policy in the last twenty years.
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