How the Party Commands the Gun: The Foreign–Domestic Threat Dilemma in China

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The leaders of authoritarian states face a dilemma between building a loyal military to guard against domestic threats and a professional military that can guard against foreign threats. In this article, I argue that leaders respond to domestic threats by promoting loyal officers and to foreign threats by promoting experienced officers. I draw on a new dataset, the first of its kind, of over 12,000 appointments to the People's Liberation Army of China. The data show that career ties and combat experience are critical for officer promotion to key military and party offices. However, in periods of high domestic threat, party leaders promote unusually large numbers of officers with personal ties to the top leader. In periods of foreign threat, on the other hand, leaders are more likely to promote officers with prior combat experience. The article challenges the conventional wisdom, showing how autocrats face a trade-off between guarding against internal and external threats.




Mattingly, D. C. (2022). How the Party Commands the Gun: The Foreign–Domestic Threat Dilemma in China. American Journal of Political Science.

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