Do People Trust the Government More? Unpacking the Distinct Impacts of Anticorruption Policies on Political Trust

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 434 –449
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920912016
Corruption erodes the quality of government (Rothstein
and Teorell 2008). It reduces the efficiency and effec-
tiveness of public services (Rose-Ackerman 1999),
inflates government spending (C. Liu, Moldogaziev, and
Mikesell 2017), undermines the rule of law (Tanzi 1998),
undercuts political equality (Warren 2004), and reveals
officials’ “ethical deficit” (Villoria et al. 2013, 86). Thus,
corruption has the broader sociopolitical consequence of
decreasing trust in government, an increasingly common
concern. Declining trust ultimately undermines the legit-
imacy of the ruling regimes (Anderson and Tverdova
2003; Seligson 2002). Accordingly, governments go to
great lengths to regain trust and increase public support
through intensive anticorruption endeavors. In contrast
to routine institutional measures to prevent and contain
corruption (Klitgaard 1988; Perry and Hondeghem
2008), these kinds of anticorruption initiatives generally
feature temporary escalations of enforcement, driven by
a strong political will and resulting in a high number of
officials arrested or otherwise held accountable for a
brief period of time (Wedeman 2005). This pattern is
common in countries where corruption is rampant. For
example, in Brazil, incumbent presidents often initiate
anticorruption policies to boost their public support in
forthcoming elections (Avis, Ferraz, and Finan 2018).
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico
regularly vows to fight corruption to maintain its ruling
status (Morris and Klesner 2010). In China, the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) periodically investigates cor-
ruption intensively to showcase its commitment to rule
of law and win public support (Manion 2004).
912016PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920912016Political Research QuarterlyKang and Zhu
1The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong
Corresponding Author:
Jiangnan Zhu, Department of Politics and Public Administration,
Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Room 933,
9/F, Centennial Campus, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.
Do People Trust the Government
More? Unpacking the Distinct
Impacts of Anticorruption
Policies on Political Trust
Siqin Kang1 and Jiangnan Zhu1
Governments at times combat corruption intensively in an attempt to (re)gain political trust. While corruption
crackdowns may demonstrate government resolve to fight corruption, the high-profile corruption uncovered may
also shock the public. Therefore, how effective can anticorruption policies help boost political trust? We argue
that anticorruption policies influence political trust through two channels: direct experience, that is, interactions
with governmental bodies, and the media, that is, second-hand information culled from reporting on anticorruption.
Differentiating between these two channels illustrates that anticorruption policies may have distinct effects on political
trust for different social groups. We contextualize our theoretical framework with the latest anticorruption drive
in China, combining longitudinal data from a national survey and field interviews and using difference-in-differences
(DID) models. Our findings support our predictions. For state-system insiders (e.g., civil servants), increase of political
trust is less pronounced than for outsiders because the former directly experience radical implementation processes
and ineffective anticorruption outcomes. Similarly, political trust increases at a lower rate for groups with higher
levels of education and greater access to information outside governmental propaganda than for their less-informed
counterparts. Intensive anticorruption efforts are therefore more likely to increase political trust for the grassroots
than for elites in China.
corruption, anticorruption enforcement, political trust, China, local government
Kang and Zhu 435
However, the effect of these intensive anticorruption
efforts on political trust is not well understood.
Enforcement initiatives may demonstrate a govern-
ment’s resolve to combat corruption, but the high levels
of corruption uncovered by a crackdown may also shock
the public. Therefore, how effective is temporary inten-
sive anticorruption enforcement at restoring political
trust? To answer this question, we propose an analytical
framework connecting macro-level policies with politi-
cal trust at the individual level. We argue that anticorrup-
tion policies mainly influence political trust through two
channels: direct experience, which refers to first-hand
encounters with policy implementation or interactions
with government agencies or officials; and the media, in
which people rely on second-hand reports from different
sources on anticorruption enforcement, such as its poli-
cies and outcomes. Accounting for these two channels
highlights how governmental anticorruption efforts
affect distinct social groups differently, depending on the
prominence of each channel in mediating each social
groups’ relationship to government agencies, officials, or
We tested our theory in the context of the latest anti-
corruption drive in China. We adopted a mixed-methods
approach, combining field interviews and quantitative
strategies, using longitudinal public opinion data from
the Chinese Family Panel Survey, conducted in 2012
and 2014 across Chinese cities, together with a self-
compiled data set of local anticorruption endeavors
measured by the number of mid-level officials arrested
in each city annually. To test the impact of intensive
anticorruption efforts on political trust in a municipal
government, we used a difference-in-differences (DID)
model. Overall, our results showed that anticorruption
efforts have a positive effect on political trust. However,
more importantly, we found that the positive effects
vary by social group and that this variation depends on
the main channel by which each group perceives anti-
corruption policies, through direct experience or the
media. Trust was less likely to increase for state-system
insiders, such as civil servants, or for individuals who
interact often with government insiders (e.g., business-
men), than for state-system outsiders. Insiders’ direct
experiences with radical implementation processes and
sometimes ineffective anticorruption outcomes generate
mixed opinions about the policies. Furthermore, those
who learn about anticorruption efforts from official
reports are more likely to increase their political trust
because their information is filtered through govern-
ment propaganda (Shirk 2011). However, this positive
effect was limited for more-informed citizens, such as
those with higher education levels or who used the
Internet frequently. By 2014, anticorruption enforce-
ment in China had a less significant effect on political
trust for elites (i.e., state-system insiders and the better-
informed) than for the grassroots (i.e., state-system out-
siders and the less informed).
Our findings advance the literature on policies’
impact on political trust. By introducing an analytical
framework, we show how policies at the macro-level
can influence political trust at the individual level. We
identify distinct channels by which public policy influ-
ences political trust and disaggregate society into social
groups based on their exposure to different channels.
By focusing our analysis on local government, we also
contribute to the emerging literature on anticorruption
efforts’ effects on political trust, which tends to primar-
ily lodge trust at the national government (e.g., Ji and
Meng 2017; Y. Wang and Dickson 2017; Zhu, Huang,
and Zhang 2019). Political trust at the local level is also
important to study because citizens are more likely to
interact with local officials than at the national level.
Furthermore, research has found that Chinese people
who distrust local government tend to have lower over-
all levels of support for the regime, despite generally
high levels of trust in the central government (Chen
2017). Finally, we alert decision-makers to the impor-
tance of proper policy implementation for maintaining
political trust.
Anticorruption Enforcement and
Political Trust
Political trust is a basic, evaluative orientation toward the
government based on “how well the government is oper-
ating according to people’s normative expectations” (K.
Hetherington 1998, 791). It is crucial for legal compli-
ance and political stability (Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn
2000). Low political trust reflects dissatisfaction with the
government and may lead to social unrest (Paige 1971).
Even in authoritarian states, higher political trust is
important to regimes because they help governments
achieve political tasks (Lianjiang Li 2013). Scholars also
find that higher political trust often coexists with more
government support (Dickson 2016; Tang 2016). People’s
specific support to government is especially a cumulative
outcome of a government’s performance, delivered by
politicians and more easily influenced by government
policies (Tang 2016). To gain specific support and trust,
politicians have an incentive to use beneficial social poli-
cies that show good performance (De Mesquita et al.
Therefore, governments, especially those in countries
with high levels of corruption, sometimes use intensive
anticorruption enforcement to improve their perfor-
mance and boost political trust. Rather than simply rely-
ing on popular institutional measures, such as reforming
civil servants’ salary levels, improving government

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