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PATRON-CLIENT NETWORKS AND
THE ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF CORRUPTION IN ASIA
Mushtaq H. Khan.
Department of Economics, SOAS, University of London, WC1H OXG.
Published in European Journal of Development Research June 1998 10 (1): 15-39.
Corruption is likely to be widespread during the early stages of capitalist development when
capitalists enjoy low legitimacy and states face excess demand for the rights and resources
they allocate. Yet the economic effects of corruption have differed greatly across Asian
countries. The paper argues that the differential economic performance of developers is
related to the types of patron-client networks within which their corruption has been located.
The type of patron-client network determines the types of rights exchanged through
corruption and the terms of these exchanges. The article compares patron-client networks in
the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. Such an examination helps to
explain why in some countries corruption has attended rapid growth while in others it has
implied transfers which are very damaging for growth. This provides a more nuanced
understanding of the causes and effects of corruption which must precede the construction
of appropriate institutional and political responses.
PATRON-CLIENT NETWORKS AND
THE ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF CORRUPTION IN ASIA
Mushtaq H. Khan
Corruption has been associated with very different economic effects across Asian countries.
In some North East Asian countries such as South Korea, widespread corruption has
accompanied decades of very high growth. In others, such as the South Asian countries of
the Indian subcontinent, corruption has been associated with relatively low growth. In a third
group of countries in South East Asia, high levels of corruption have been associated with
moderately high long-run growth rates. These differences could be the result of differences in
underlying rates of growth. On the other hand they could also be the result of corruption
having differential effects across countries (while their underlying growth rates can, of
course, vary as well). Economic theory has identified a number of factors which could
explain differences in the economic effects of corruption. However economic explanations
have given little attention to differences in the political power of the groups competing for
resources allocated by the state. This paper argues that the distribution of political power is
revealed in differences in the structure of patron-client networks across countries and these
can be important for explaining the differential effects of corruption. The bargaining power of
patrons and clients can explain differences in the rights and resources which they exchange
(often in corrupt transactions). This in turn can contribute to our understanding of the
differential effects of corruption. We will examine the patron-client networks linking states
and competing groups of clients in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, Thailand and South
Korea and investigate the ways in which the structure of these networks can determine the
economic effects associated with corruption in those countries.
Section 1 explains the structural pressures resulting in significant degrees of corruption in
virtually every developing country. One reason why it has been difficult to allocate resources
in developing countries in ways which are always strictly legal is that for a wide range of
critical rights any state allocation would be perceived to be illegitimate. Economic
development is characterised by the creation of new wealth-owning classes. The rights
which underpin the emergence of these classes are by definition new and not widely
perceived to be legitimate. The underlying problem of course is that in developing countries
the result of these early developmental allocations are widely and correctly perceived to
have consequences for generations to come when new classes stabilise. As a result many
decisions made by states concerning the allocation of these critical rights cannot easily be
made through strictly legal frameworks simply because a transparent allocative rule is often
impossible to agree on. Thus even in countries where rapid growth takes place, there has
been a tendency for state allocations to be not fully exposed to public scrutiny and so
susceptible to corruption. The interesting question is why some countries were more
effective in generating growth despite these problems while in others wealth was transferred
Faculty of Economics, SOAS, University of London. I am grateful to Mark Robinson for
his comments as well as to the participants at the IDS Workshop on Corruption and
to relatively unproductive groups. Section 2 summarises a number of explanation offered by
economists and develops one which has not received much attention: the relative political
power of the different groups of clients demanding rights (and resources) from patrons in the
Section 3 compares several key differences in the patron-client networks in a number of
Asian countries to show how differences in the distribution of power implicit in these
networks may explain differences in the types of rights created and allocated by the state
and thereby differences in their economic performance. In the South Asian countries of the
Indian subcontinent, the patron-client networks reveal the substantial political power of
clients from intermediate “non-capitalist” classes. Attempts to accommodate the demands of
these intermediate classes has resulted in interlocked patron-client transactions involving
bureaucrats and politicians on the one hand and capitalists and non-capitalist clients on the
other. These interlocked exchanges have meant that the rights created or allocated by the
state became locked into enmeshed networks and were not easy to subsequently re-
allocate. This in turn resulted in structural sclerosis. In contrast, in South Korea, patron-
client exchanges were almost entirely insulated from the demands of intermediate classes
because of the historical weakness of intermediate classes in that country. Politicians and
through them the bureaucrats allocating new rights to capitalists could extract substantial
payoffs from industrial groups. But here the networks through which these exchanges were
organised allowed the re-allocation of these rights. This in turn created strong incentives for
the state to re-allocate rights and resources in ways which maximised long-run growth.
South-East Asian countries present a number of interesting variants which in different ways
resulted in more dynamic economies than in South Asia despite the presence of large
intermediate classes and more complex patterns of patron-client exchanges than in South
Korea. Malaysia inherited a large class of individuals whose demands could potentially have
resulted in patron-client exchanges of the Indian variety. However, in Malaysia the clear
ethnic division between intermediate classes who were largely Malay and a capitalist class
which was initially largely Chinese paradoxically allowed the construction of a structure of
patron-client exchanges which allowed fairly rapid growth. Instead of many decentralised
patron-client exchanges between many different patrons and groups of clients, the ethnic
redistribution adopted by the New Economic Policy in the seventies allowed a centralised
sharing of rents in Malaysia. This served to prevent structural sclerosis from developing
along Indian lines.
Thailand provides yet another South-East Asian variant. Here Chinese capitalists were well-
integrated into local political elites and an ethnic-based patronage politics along Malaysian
lines did not emerge. Instead, the relatively well developed capitalist class took over
patronage networks themselves. They became the patrons “buying off” the demands of
potential clients from amongst the aspiring intermediate classes and using this political power
to bargain for resource allocation to their particular faction. The role of capitalists in Thai
politics is apparent in the exceptionally large number of capitalists (by developing country
standards) involved in Thai electoral politics. Here we have yet another structure of patron-
client exchanges which allowed a relatively decentralised type of capitalism to thrive. These
explorations suggest how the location of corrupt transactions within specific structures of
patron-client exchanges can help to make sense of differential economic performance.
It may be utopian to believe that the transition to capitalism can be entirely just. Yet unless
the transition process is widely perceived to be just, it is difficult for it to be organised in a
legally regulated way in an open polity. External pressure to tackle corruption may help
development only if such pressure contributes to the legitimisation of the processes through
which capitalism is being created. On the other hand, it is very likely that anti-corruption
strategies may sometimes make the problem of organising internal political stability more
difficult during processes of capitalist transition which could in turn prolong instability and the
perpetuation of underdevelopment. The issue of corruption thus brings to the fore the limits
of attempts to establish high standards of justice in the transition to capitalism in the absence
of any global political commitment to equitably share the costs of structural change.
1. Corruption in Developing Countries
It is not very useful to quibble over formal definitions of corruption. Most usually corruption
is defined as the violation of the formal rules governing the allocation of public resources by
officials in response to offers of financial gain or political support [Nye 1967, Khan 1996b].
However it is defined, corruption appears to be endemic in developing countries and indeed
there are systematic reasons why this should be the case. Accumulation and the allocation of
public resources in developing countries very frequently involves changes in established
property rights and institutions or the creation of entirely new ones. To put it simply, the state
is allocating rights and resources at a time when a new capitalist class is emerging. Given the
long-run and even inter-generational consequences of these allocations, there are huge
incentives to dispute, contest and attempt to change all such allocations.
For these processes not to involve corruption, the allocation and creation of these new
rights would have to follow strict rules so that particular individuals could not change these
allocations by bribing. The problem is that any such rules would themselves have to be
publicly set up. Given the post-colonial political settlement in most developing countries, it is
unlikely that explicit rules which aim to create new capitalist classes could be set up in such a
way as to enjoy widespread legitimacy. If we recognise that what is happening in developing
countries is the creation of new classes by the allocation and stabilisation of new rights, it is
easy to appreciate the substantial difficulties in following a transparent and accountable route
to the construction of capitalism even if developing country leaders had always been minded
to follow such a route.
Suppose we were to try to construct a set of transparent and legitimate rules through which
capitalist property rights were to be created. On the one hand, the supply of the resources
through which the emergence of the new class is being encouraged is severely limited in
developing countries. This is a manifestation of underdevelopment and poverty. On the other
hand, there is likely to be a very great demand for access to these resources so that
particular individuals can join this emerging class. Anti-colonial struggles mobilised large
multi-class populist alliances in many developing countries and post-colonial states could not
explicitly formulate rules of allocation which appeared to leave any of these groups out of the
contest. Constitutions and laws enshrined principles of allocation which were egalitarian and
fair at a time when underlying resource constraints made following such principles extremely
difficult. The large gap between demand and supply has often meant that the actual
allocation of property rights often failed the principles of allocation which the law set out.
Very great incentives were created for corruption. This was as true for the allocation of land,
credit or licenses to emerging industrialists as for the allocation of irrigation water or credit to
emerging capitalist farmers.
The contest over public resources is particularly severe because the early beneficiaries of
these contests are winners in a game of class evolution which is likely to have consequences
for generations to come. In many cases, the individuals who succeed in establishing
themselves at this critical stage only do so as a result of a great deal of good fortune, political
connections, some initial wealth or corruption. None of these characteristics can legitimise
the large differences in income and wealth which subsequently emerge. Given the inherent
unfairness involved in these processes it has been relatively easy to organise opposition to
these characteristics of the development processes in most developing countries. Opposition
has typically been organised by members of emerging middle class groups who have been
left behind in the development process and is therefore more intense in societies where these
groups are better organised and entrenched.
Paradoxically, the opposition of these groups has often resulted in a second set of structural
pressures generating high levels of corruption in developing countries. The opposition of
organised groups has often had to be bought off by payoffs from existing elites or directly
from the state to the most troublesome or vociferous opponents in an attempt to “purchase”
support or legitimacy. This type of corruption is more overtly political in motivation as
opposed to the corruption which results from the excess demand for publicly allocated
resources and rights. Here the state allocates resources to those with the greatest ability to
create political problems rather than to those who have the greatest ability to pay (see Khan
1996a for a discussion of the significance of the distinction). Political corruption too results in
surreptitious transfers because (in most cases) payoffs to opponents in proportion to their
ability to make trouble could not by its nature be publicly recorded in the budget.
This is the general background against which we need to examine the evolution of patterns
of corruption in Asian countries. The approach in this paper will be to locate the processes
of corruption in the context of the very different routes through which classes and property
rights have been evolving in developing countries. We argue that by so doing we are better
able to account for the differences in the apparent effects of corruption across countries. The
processes of accumulation have been quite different across Asia. The rights which were
being created for emerging capitalist classes and the terms under which these rights were
being created differed greatly. Since the social utility of property rights depends quite a lot
on which rights are created and the terms of their creation it is not surprising that the
processes of corruption in these countries were associated with a very wide range of
economic performance. To say this is not to justify corruption even under those conditions
where it was associated with rapid growth. Rather it is to point out that corruption can have
much more damaging effects in contexts where it is associated with growth-retarding
patterns of accumulation. It is also to point out that corruption is often integrally linked with
the political processes through which capitalism is being constructed rather than simply being
an excrescence which can be easily excised.
The literature on corruption has been concerned from the outset with whether corruption
was beneficial or harmful and under what circumstances. However, the circumstances were
typically so broadly defined that in effect competing models appeared to show that
corruption was likely to be either generally harmful or generally beneficial. For instance, in an
early contribution Leff  argued that corruption was likely to have beneficial effects in
developing countries suffering from restrictive private monopolies and state intervention. By
allowing entrepreneurs to side-step restrictive rules, Leff argued that corruption could result
in more efficient resource allocation. Since virtually every developing country could be
described as having restrictive rules in key sectors as well as private monopolies, Leff’s
argument suggests that corruption could be generally beneficial in a large number of
countries. In fact, in the African countries Leff was particularly interested in, the beneficial
effects of corruption were least in evidence.
In contrast, Myrdal  argued that the possibility of corruption may induce bureaucrats
to deliberately introduce legislation which created new obstacles. Myrdal’s argument
anticipated some of the rent-seeking literature to come in the seventies and eighties. Since
bureaucrats can always create new possibilities of extracting bribes by creating new
restrictions, Myrdal, and the rent-seeking literature generally is suspicious of any corruption.
This type of argument suggests that in general corruption signals harmful rent-seeking by
state officials who have deliberately created value-reducing restrictions whose effects leave
society worse off. This approach too cannot do justice to the widespread evidence of
substantial corruption in many developing countries which enjoyed high rates of growth.
Indeed historical evidence suggests the presence of widespread corruption in the currently
advanced countries at an earlier stage of their development. The gradual reduction of
corruption in the successful developers may have been the result rather than the
precondition of successful development.
Clearly we need to have an analytical framework which allows corruption to have different
effects in different countries. If indeed corruption has a uniform effect (whether good or bad)
everywhere, this should be the conclusion reached at the end of a process of evaluation and
analysis rather than a presumption made at the outset. If on the other hand, corruption can
have variable effects, identifying these differences could be of great policy importance. Even
if all corruption is equally undesirable on moral grounds, the differences between them in
terms of their economic effects may inform the direction of policy and institutional attention.
Two sets of observations constitute the starting point of our enquiry: i) the association of
corruption with poor performance in the South Asian countries and ii) the comparatively
much better performance of East and South-East Asian countries despite the prevalence of
substantial corruption there.
Informal journalistic evidence suggests that corruption has been widespread in virtually all
developing countries. This view is corroborated by the subjective responses of foreigners
who have done business in these countries. These responses are summarised in the Business
International corruption index which is reported in Table 1 for our sample of countries for
the period 1980-83. Table 1 shows that for this group of countries, the extent of corruption
correlates very poorly with economic performance. The differences between subjective
corruption indices ranging from 6 to 4 are not necessarily significant but the table does
suggest that over the relevant period, very corrupt Thailand did not perform significantly
worse than apparently less corrupt South Korea and probably better than less corrupt and
more resource-rich Malaysia. As a group, these countries combined good performance with
high levels of corruption. The South Asian countries fit more closely with the perception that
corruption is associated with poor performance. But even here, more corrupt Pakistan
appears to have performed somewhat better than less corrupt India.
COUNTRY CORRUPTION GDP Growth Rates
INDEX 1980-83 1970-80 1980-92
(10 = No Corruption,
0 = Maximum Corruption)
Malaysia 6 7.9 5.9
South Korea 5.7 9.6 9.4
India 5.25 3.4 5.2
Pakistan 4 4.9 6.1
Bangladesh 4 2.3 4.2
Thailand 1.5 7.1 8.2
Source: Mauro , World Development Report .
Table 1 Corruption and Economic Performance
COUNTRY CORRUPTION GDP Growth Rates
INDEX 1980-83 1970-80 1980-92
(10 = No Corruption,
0 = Maximum Corruption)
Malaysia 6 7.9 5.9
South Korea 5.7 9.6 9.4
India 5.25 3.4 5.2
Pakistan 4 4.9 6.1
Bangladesh 4 2.3 4.2
Thailand 1.5 7.1 8.2
Source: Mauro , World Development Report .
Table 1 Corruption and Economic Performance
Some of these differences in performance between these countries may be accounted for by
variations in economic variables such as investment rates. However, we will concentrate on
factors which may explain why corruption is itself associated with differential effects across
2. Some Determinants of the Effects of Corruption.
The overall economic effect of corruption can be broken down into two components. The
first is the economic effect of the bribe. The resources transferred in the bribe itself often
results in a reduction in social value and is therefore an economic cost for society. In theory,
however, bribes could be pure transfers which simply redistribute wealth but keep total
wealth unchanged. In this rare case the bribe itself may be costless for society. In the more
usual case, bribes from industrialists or other social actors to state officials represent a social
cost of variable magnitude as social wealth is reduced to a greater or lesser extent. This is
typically the case if the bribe-giver would otherwise have invested the bribe in production
whereas the transfer to the official typically results in consumption with possible value-
reduction for the economy over time. This is the first effect of corruption which is the effect
of the flow of resources from social actors to state officials shown by the higher arrow in
Figure 1 The Two Economic Effects of Corruption
The second effect of corruption is the economic consequence of the new rights or
reallocations of rights brought about by state officials as the quid pro quo of the bribes they
have received. This is the effect of the rights created or transferred by state officials in
response to the bribe which is shown by the lower arrow in Figure 1. This part of the
analysis is much more complicated as it is not always the case that the changes brought
about as a result of or in association with corruption are always value reducing for society
(Leff’s argument was a simple version of the value-enhancing possibility). There is also a
problem of choosing the benchmark quite carefully (the structure and allocation of rights
which would have existed in the absence of corruption) to judge this effect correctly [Khan
1996b]. Clearly Figure 1 is a simplification of the possibly complex flows of bribes and
payoffs from social actors to state officials on the one hand and flows of rights, subsidies and
allocations of public resources from officials to social actors on the other. We examine some
of these complexities in greater detail later.
The overall effect of corruption is the joint effect of the direct implications of the bribe and
the effect of the rights created or transferred as a result. Differential effects across countries
can be due to differences in either or both of these effects [Khan 1997]. In some cases
corruption may be damaging mainly because the bribes are large or may have particularly
damaging effects on the economy because of lost opportunities for investors or the use
made of the bribes by recipients. In other cases the significant negative effect of corruption
may be due to the types of rights created, who they are created for and the terms under
which they are created. The patron-client networks which we will concentrate on in this
(First Effect: Value-Reducing,
(Second Effect: Value-Enhancing
article have implications for the effects of corruption particularly because of their role in
determining the second effect, that is in determining the types of rights which are created or
transferred through corrupt transactions.
Patron-client networks describe a set of transactions which may overlap with and yet are
analytically distinct from corruption. Patron-client relationships are repeated relationships of
exchange between specific patrons and their clients. A number of features distinguish
patron-client exchanges from other types of exchange. First, such exchanges are usually
personalised. They involve an identifiable patron and an identifiable set of clients. Entry and
exit is considerably less free compared to normal market transactions. Secondly, the
exchange is between two distinct types of agents, distinguished by status, power or other
characteristics [Schmidt et. al. 1977 in particular Landé: xiii-xxxvii]. Typically the superior
member is the patron and the inferior member the client. Clearly a wide range of exchanges
in developing countries between state officials and privileged groups of clients can be
described in these terms. Nevertheless, the power or status of the patron can vary across a
broad range and these differences may be important for understanding the types of
exchanges taking place within different patron-client networks [Khan 1996a,b]. It is this
insight which makes patron-client networks interesting for the study of corruption. The type
of network can give us critical additional information about the types of rights being
transacted and the terms on which these transactions take place. Some characteristics of
patrons and clients which are likely to influence the economic implications of the transactions
are easily dealt with by economists, others are less simple to model.
i) Objectives and Ideologies: Economists normally assume that actors in state and society
will want to maximise value for themselves. At the very least, they will want to maximise
value for someone. In fact both state officials and social actors may be motivated by ends
which are primarily non-economic such as race or ethnicity. To the extent that transactions
between patrons and clients reflect such non-economic goals, economic value may
obviously not be maximised [North 1981, 1995].
The objectives of state officials and social actors determine their goals while their ideologies
(shared assumptions about how the world works) influence the ways in which they attempt
to achieve them. Exchanges within patron-client networks can only be value-maximising if
the partners to the exchange want to achieve value maximisation for themselves or at least
for others. It is not necessary that they be totally motivated by value maximisation as long as
a substantial part of decision-making is motivated by it. If transactions are value-maximising
for individuals they may also, under certain conditions, be value-maximising for society. On
the other hand, transactions which are not even value-maximising for the transactors are very
unlikely to be value-maximising for society. Apart from being motivated (to a large extent at
least) by economic value-maximisation, it is also necessary that the participants have
ideologies which enable them to learn rapidly so that they do not hold on to beliefs about
causes and effects which do not stand up to repeated experience. North  has recently
stressed the importance of ideologies and learning processes in explaining differences in
performance across countries. Ideologies could therefore have some role to play in
explaining why both corrupt and non-corrupt transactions within patron-client networks may
differ across countries. While ideologies and learning processes may be important it is likely
that their importance has been exaggerated in some recent work [Khan 1995: 79-85].
ii) Numbers of Clients: The numbers of potential clients of each type can affect their
success in organising collective action in bargaining with patrons. If small groups with
specific interests are more successful in organising collective action, they may bribe or lobby
more effectively than bigger groups and indeed the rest of society [Olson 1965, 1982]. This
could result in rights being created to favour small groups even when they are value-reducing
for society as a whole. However, small numbers are only part of the story. In most
developing countries, resources have to be directed to and rights created for small numbers
of emerging “capitalists”. But in fact their expected advantage in lobbying or bribing due to
their small numbers is often over-ridden by the bargaining power of other groups such as the
urban middle classes or rich peasants whose power is often based on their large numbers.
Thus while numbers are important, their effect on bargaining power is more complicated
than is suggested by the simplest interpretations of Olson’s model.
iii) The Homogeneity of Clients: This too may determine the chances of successful
collective action by different groups of clients. More importantly, the homogeneity or
otherwise of particular groups may determine the relative transaction costs facing state
officials or political patrons in collecting bribes from that group. If some clients are relatively
easy to transact with (say because they are of the same ethnic group as the patrons), the
latter may prefer to deal with them even if others may notionally have been willing to pay
more. Thus for instance the relative homogeneity of small groups demanding value-reducing
rights may be successful while less homogenous larger groups demanding value-enhancing
rights may fail. The relative transaction costs of dealing with different groups of clients may
be relevant for explaining some outcomes of patron-client exchanges in developing countries
iv) The Institutions through which Patrons and Clients Interact: These include in
particular the institutions of the state through which patrons and clients negotiate and carry
out exchanges. Institutions can influence both the “demand” for new rights (the flow of
bribes to state officials) as well as influencing the “supply” of rights (the flows of rights from
patrons to those offering bribes). On the demand side, institutions may allow or prevent
particular groups of clients to compete for new rights or resources. They also describe the
rules of the game which define how clients who bribe can expect their chances of winning to
change as a result. These institutional features determine the magnitude of the bribes offered
by particular groups of clients demanding particular rights or re-allocations of rights [Mueller
1989: 229-235]. On the supply side, the degree of fragmentation of institutions may
determine how easy it is for different patrons to coordinate their transactions. A failure to
coordinate may sometimes result in lower valued rights being created even though patrons
might collectively have extracted bigger bribes by collectively creating higher valued rights
[Rose-Ackerman 1978, Shleifer & Vishny 1993]. Institutional structures can thus play an
important role in determining the outcomes of patron-client exchanges.
v) The Relative Political Power of Patrons and Clients: The potential role of relative
political power in determining the types of rights transacted between patrons and clients has
not been adequately recognised in the literature. The relative political power of clients
determines the type of payoff they can offer to the patron. If clients are politically weak, the
patron is likely to extract the maximum economic payoff from the client in the form of a
bribe commensurate with the right being created or transferred. At the other extreme, if the
patron is politically weak, the client may instead be offering political support rather than an
economic payoff. The payoff to the patron in this case is not just the value of the bribe paid
to state officials and politicians but also the political support (or absence of political
opposition) which is often also offered [Khan 1996a, 1996b]. We argue that a critical factor
determining differences in the rights which are transacted between patrons and clients in
different settings is the relative power of competing groups of clients and their patrons in the
One reason why political power has received little attention from economists is that it is
relatively difficult to define. Steven Lukes distinguished between power defined as a
collective capacity which he called power
and power defined as an asymmetric
relationship between individuals or groups which he called power
[Lukes 1978: 636]. The
first type of power is relevant when we want to discuss power as a transformative capacity.
However, for our purposes, the relevant notion of power is power
in Lukes’ terminology.
determines whether clients are able to bargain a more or less attractive deal with
their patrons. Udehn [1996: 150] suggests an even narrower version of power
which he defines as the capacity of some actors to reward and/or punish other
and its determinants may be most relevant for looking at differential
bargaining outcomes within patron-client networks. The determinants of power
the extent to which clients are able to inflict political costs on patrons if they are ignored. The
greater the power of clients in terms of the second and third definitions, the more likely is it
that patrons will be offering powerful groups of clients rights in exchange for political support
rather than economic payoffs.
Differences in the power of specific groups of clients across countries may then be important
for understanding differences in the bargains they are able to strike with their patrons. It may
determine whether patrons are primarily motivated by economic or political considerations
when negotiating with clients. When clients lack political power in the form of power
patrons can focus on economic considerations alone. Other things being equal (the factors
discussed earlier), a patron allocating a right will prefer to allocate or create rights for clients
who add the most value. This is because these clients will in principle be able to offer the
biggest bribes. In contrast when clients have the power to disrupt or otherwise impose
political costs on patrons, purely economic considerations are not enough. We have
elsewhere described the costs which clients can threaten to impose as transition costs
[Khan 1995: 81-83]. To avoid these costs, rights may be created for or allocated to clients
on the basis of their relative power to disrupt. Thus this type of power may have implications
for the rights which are created through patron-client transactions including those involving
3. Corruption and Power in Patron-Client Networks.
Exchanges within patron-client networks are in reality much more complex than the neat
bilateral exchanges shown in Figure 1. While some of these complexities may be usefully
abstracted from, others are critically important for picking up economically relevant
differences in a comparative analysis. In particular, the position of different types of clients
and actors within the state and their bargaining relationships need to be identified even if in a
highly simplified way in different contexts. Nevertheless, the basic format of the implicit
exchanges outlined in Figure 1 can still be used to keep track of what is going on in
transactions involving several groups of patrons and clients.
In what follows, we identify what we think are several key features of exchanges within
patron-client networks in several Asian countries. The characteristics identified are based on
the work of political scientists and political economists and refer to exchanges which may be
described as typical of those countries without suggesting that these are the only types of
patron-client exchanges occurring. We then identify why these patterns may be relevant for
understanding the economic performance of these countries, and therefore the economic
consequences of the associated corruptions.
i) South Asia. Despite important differences between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh there
are substantial similarities in the predominant types of corruption observed in these three
populous South Asian countries. The basic patterns of subcontinental corruption were
described by Wade in his classic studies of corruption in the irrigation bureaucracy of a
South Indian state [Wade 1984, 1985, 1989]. The distinguishing characteristic of corruption
in the Indian subcontinent is the close intermeshing of economic and political calculations in
exchanges between patrons and clients at different levels.
A number of factors have contributed to the evolution of complex networks of interlinked
exchanges in the Indian subcontinent. The factor which is probably the single most important
one for the exchanges which concern us is the political importance of intermediate classes in
the Indian social structure. Important groups of clients in the Indian subcontinent have been
drawn from these intermediate or “middle” classes. Often the professional members of these
groups have been recognised as equal members of the dominant class coalition in India,
along with capitalists and landlords [Bardhan 1984]. However, for our purposes it is useful
to distinguish between the capitalist members of the dominant coalition and the much larger
non-capitalist section which consists of emerging middle class groups, the educated sections
of the population, both employed and unemployed and others who use political power to get
access to resources. The importance of these non-capitalist intermediate classes in the
subcontinental political space far outweighs their numbers which in any case would run into
The relevant power of this latter group is very largely the third type of power discussed
earlier. It is a power which is based fundamentally on their organisational and political ability
to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of patrons who fail to deliver [Khan 1989]. This is
reflected in a state tradition of rapid and ongoing accommodation and incorporation of
emerging intermediate groups even while fairly ruthless suppression appears to be taking
place. One of the most important mechanisms of incorporation is the transfer of surpluses to
these classes through patron-client exchanges, some of which are perfectly legal (such as
subsidies) while others are corrupt and involve illegal transfers of resources or the transfer of
resources which were illegally generated.
Both Pakistan and India and subsequently Bangladesh inherited the effects of a deep-rooted
anti-colonial political mobilisation which empowered their emerging “middle classes”. They
inherited a tradition of political activity on the basis of a wide variety of emotive symbols
including language, caste and religion and these patterns of mobilisation were widely
accepted as legitimate in the post-colonial society. Politics based on these symbols has not
enriched the vast majority of the populations of these countries but has enabled successive
layers of emerging middle class groups to get access to public resources on the basis of their
ability to organise much more numerous groups below them. Those amongst the
intermediate classes who happened to be in power found it necessary to organise transfers
to the most vociferous of the excluded groups in ongoing processes of accommodation and
What is important is that a large part of the transfer (whether legal or illegal) from patrons to
intermediate classes of clients has been based on the political bargaining power of these
pyramidally organised groups of clients. These transfers in turn have had to be financed and
patrons had to find the resources for such transfers either in general taxation or through
exchanges with other groups of clients. The inadequacy of general fiscal resources is an
important part of the reason why we observe a complex intermeshing of political and
economic exchanges in patron-client networks in the Indian subcontinent. Political elites
have often found the resources with which they “finance” their political survival in their
economic exchanges with other groups of clients, in particular the slowly emerging class of
industrial capitalists. This is an important factor explaining the dense structure of interlinked
economic and political exchanges which Wade identified but did not adequately explain.
Political “corruption” led to economic corruption as each group of politicians organised their
own networks of resource collection and distribution.
The interlocked networks based around each political faction in turn have had important
implications for the rights which are created or allocated to capitalists and which in turn have
implications for long-run performance. Capitalists too are rational political actors and in a
context where no political actor or bureaucrat is able to operate without satisfying their
constituencies, it has been relatively easy for capitalists to ensure that they too were funding
powerful constituencies so that their interest in leading the easy life could not be challenged.
As a result, the politicians and bureaucrats who have organised their political survival
through such localised arrangements are often unable to change the structure or allocation of
rights to capitalists even when this would raise value. The difficulty of changing the structure
of rights because of such interlinked patron-client exchanges thus serves to block structural
change and productivity growth when growth requires the creation of new rights or the re-
allocation or alteration of existing rights.
Figure 2 Flows within Patron-Client Networks in the Indian Subcontinent
Figure 2 shows the potential complexity of the flows of resources between patrons and
clients in the political context typical of most South Asian countries. Bureaucrats and
politicians constitute two parallel hierarchies and at each level bureaucrats or politicians may
be patrons for lower level colleagues or for groups elsewhere in society. For simplicity
Figure 2 only distinguishes between two social groups, the capitalist and non-capitalist
clients of the state, the latter being the intermediate classes discussed earlier. The most
successful non-capitalist clients often become political leaders or even capitalists over time.
The most distinctive feature of these patron-client exchanges are the transfers going from
politicians at different levels to different groups of non-capitalist clients. The quid pro quo
from these clients to the state is not shown in Figure 2 because it is typically not an economic
payoff but rather a “payoff” in the form of political quiescence or support.
The resources for the economic payoffs to the intermediate classes come from the rest of
society in the form of taxes or transfers from other groups of clients. If we look at the nodes
representing the “capitalist” clients of the state, we see a number of transfers going the other
way, this time from these clients to patrons in the bureaucracy and in the political structure.
Emerging capitalists are willing to make these transfers to politicians and bureaucrats
because they too are often receiving subsidies, allocations of valuable property rights or at
the very least the protection of their property rights. Emerging capitalists in both India and
Pakistan have received large subsidies and were allocated scarce resources such as land,
credit and foreign exchange on a preferential basis. This was justified by the claim that these
were transfers which would induce industrialisation or agricultural growth which in turn was
perceived by the respective states as essential for the survival of the economy and of their
country’s sovereignty. The kickbacks from industrialists have in turn been an important
source of finance for the political survival strategies of subcontinental politicians.
While the networks of corruption and political payoffs in India have often been commented
on, the economic implications of these complex networks has not been analysed. An
important consequence was that allocations of rights and subsidies which were to create a
new capitalist class rapidly got embroiled in the networks of transfers which maintained
political stability. As a result, any particular allocation proved very difficult to change once it
had become established as change provoked opposition from many different quarters.
Economic allocations to particular capitalists were soon difficult to separate from the political
payoffs to the non-capitalist clients who had been accommodated through interlocking
transfers. The eventual result was the emergence of persistent subsidies for poorly
performing industries and sectors which were difficult to change in response to performance
failures or changes in technology and markets.
This result was common to both India and Pakistan in the sixties and beyond despite the
institutional and policy differences between Nehru’s Five Year Plans and Ayub’s
authoritarian industrial policy. Declining economic performance combined with a sustained
growth in political demands from emerging middle classes led to dramatic political crises in
the Indian subcontinent. These twin features characterised the dismemberment of Pakistan in
1971, ethnic violence in post-1971 Pakistan, deep-seated political instability in Bangladesh
and the growth of centrifugal political forces in India as linguistic and regional forces
gathered strength in the seventies and eighties.
ii) South Korea. The revelations of corruption in South Korea which have begun to emerge
in the nineties suggests that corruption in North East Asia has probably been as extensive in
terms of the relative magnitudes of the transfers as it has been in South Asia. On the other
hand, the pattern of resource flows appears to be both different and simpler. This seems to
have been particularly the case in the early days of industrial policy in the sixties [Kim 1994:
59-70, Kong 1996]. There is evidence, however, that political power has become more
dispersed over the eighties resulting in more complex patterns of transfers [Ravenhill 1997].
The broad features of the South Korean case suggest a much higher degree of concentration
of political power which allowed the political executive to extract rents from beneficiaries of
new rights without having to make political side-payments to non-capitalist clients to
anything like the extent which we observe in South Asia.
Figure 3 Flows within Patron-Client Networks in South Korea
Figure 3 is a simplified picture of resource flows within patron-client networks in South
Korea. Given the lesser importance of non-capitalist clients of the state in this case, we
simplify by excluding non-capitalist clients from the figure. This outline is consistent with
Amsden’s  account of the flows associated with industrial policy in South Korea and
is in its main features corroborated by a number of subsequent observers [Kim & Ma
1997]. The main features of the state-society transfers taking place were first the transfer of
large subsidies from the state to emerging capitalists. These are shown by the arrows from
different sets of patrons in the bureaucratic apparatus to specific clients in the industrial
sector. We now also know that there were in exchange substantial kickbacks from these
favoured industrial groups to the political leadership as rents from the growing industrial
sector were re-distributed to the political leadership and through this route to bureaucrats as
well [Kong 1996]. The revelations of the last two years suggest that part of these rents were
later distributed in a relatively orderly fashion down the higher levels of the political and
The centralised rent collection and distribution of industrial rents by the peak political leaders
created powerful incentives to allocate and create rights in ways which maximised these
rents over time. Rents are maximised over time if growth is maximised. This is simply saying
that the economic ability of investors to pay bribes is proportional to the productivity of the
investor. Recalling the factors considered in Section 2, in the absence of a short time horizon
or other constraints on allocation, even politicians or officials who are merely concerned with
maximising bribes over time will allocate rights or subsidies in such a way as to maximise
growth. This involves making sure that the most productive entrepreneurs are favoured and
the less productive ones are weeded out. The top politician in the South Korean state was
able to operate in this way because the political bargaining power of unrelated individuals to
bargain for payoffs was virtually absent during a critical phase of the country’s development
when key property rights were being established and developmental resources were being
allocated for rapid industrialisation [Woo-Cumings 1997]. The absence of a powerful
intermediate class which could demand payoffs from the state at this critical stage of
industrialisation can in turn be traced to Korea’s social history and the nature of the
Japanese colonial impact which prevented these classes from developing or consolidating
iii) Malaysia. The South-East Asian countries provide interesting intermediate cases. Unlike
South Korea and Taiwan with their fairly exceptional social structures formed under the
Japanese colonial impact [Kohli 1994], the South East Asian countries were closer to the
South Asian pattern. Although less powerful and entrenched than in the Indian
sub-continent, emergent middle classes in these countries possessed a greater ability to
organise political opposition and thereby demand political payoffs compared to their North
Asian counterparts. The political and institutional responses in these South East Asian
countries show a wide range of variation in terms of the patterns of political side-payments
organised to maintain political viability. Malaysia and Thailand provide two interesting
contrasts to the South Asian case. In both these countries political payoffs and corruption
were very important but did not prevent rapid accumulation and growth.
Malaysia inherited an ethnic problem which could have spelt disaster. In the sixties it
possessed an enterprising capitalist sector based on small scale trade and production but this
sector was dominated by ethnic Chinese capitalists. An emerging Malay middle class was
increasingly willing to use its political muscle to organise the Malay majority to get a larger
share of the pie for itself. Luckily for Malaysia, the co-incidence of ethnic identities with
class ones to some extent helped the organisation of political payoffs in a centralised way.
The orderly solution to the legitimation problem emerged as an unintended consequence of
the 1969 riots and the adoption of the New Economic Policy. The political bargain between
patrons in the state and politically powerful claimants for resources was resolved through
centralising the demands of the emerging Malay middle classes in an ethnically aligned
political system. This allowed the state to organise political transfers centrally without
constructing decentralised and interlocked exchanges between competing groups of political
factions, their intermediate group clients and particular subsets of capitalists. The de-linking
of political payoffs from economic corruption allowed in turn a greater degree of rationality
in the allocation of subsidies and the protection of capitalist property rights than was possible
in the Indian subcontinent [Khan 1997, Jomo & Gomez 1997].
Figure 4 Flows within Patron-Client Networks in Malaysia
The characteristic features of the economic flows between patrons and clients in post-1969
Malaysia are shown in Figure 4. The most important transfers are shown in the arrow from
the (largely) Chinese capitalists to the political leadership of the Malay party UMNO which
dominated the political system. These transfers included both taxes and illegal extractions.
The rents extracted were then centrally distributed through the political apparatus to the non-
capitalist clients of UMNO shown by the arrows cascading down the political apparatus to
non-capitalist clients. In return domestic capitalists received protection and increasingly,
assistance for moving into high technology industries through the provision of good
infrastructure and the negotiation of backward linkages between the state and the
multinationals operating in Malaysia. These quid pro quo payoffs to Malaysia’s capitalists
were typically not large explicit subsidies (as in South Korea) but they were nevertheless of
economic significance and are shown in Figure 4 by the arrows from the bureaucracy to
capitalists. The distinctiveness of this system compared to the South Asian system was that
rent extraction from the Chinese capitalists was centralised and initially at least, direct links
between particular capitalists and political factions in the Indian manner did not exist. This
has changed to some extent over time as the Malaysian economy has grown and with it the
political power of competing Malay factions within UMNO. But the picture sketched above
is reasonably accurate for the late sixties and early seventies when Malaysia began its
One feature which distinguishes Malaysia from the South Asian countries and partly explains
why Malaysia’s clientelist politics was able to coexist with a more dynamic and competitive
capitalist sector is that country’s vast resource wealth. This allowed the distribution of
political payoffs to the emerging Malay middle class on a big enough scale to keep them
satisfied. It is doubtful whether the small productive sector in any of the post-colonial South
Asian countries could have transferred rents to the state for centralised distribution on a
scale which would have satisfied all the demands being made. On the other hand, the bi-
polar ethnic dimension of the conflict in Malaysia helped rather than hindered the
construction of an efficient solution to the clientelist problem. It allowed the construction of a
fairly explicit and centralised “tax” system which taxed capitalists for the benefit of emerging
intermediate groups. The language of ethnic deprivation allowed a high proportion of these
exactions to be legitimised and therefore organised through centralised and legal party and
state structures without secret deals and personalised bargains. This is consistent with the
observation that Malaysia is the least corrupt of the group of countries shown in Table 1
according to subjective corruption indices. A non-ethnic and purely welfarist argument for
transfers would not have been equivalent because it would have required that the bulk of the
transfers went to the poorest groups in Malaysia and not necessarily to the leading factions
of the intermediate classes who had the greatest political power. Given this problem facing a
purely welfarist argument, it is difficult to imagine an equivalent ideology in India which could
have served to justify a similar centralised transfer from capitalists to the leaders of India’s
contesting and diverse intermediate groups.
The accommodation of the Malay intermediate classes through the centralised collection and
distribution of rents prevented the build-up of dense localised networks of exchanges
between patrons and clients along the Indian pattern. This in turn allowed the structure of
rights and subsidies allocated by the state to remain relatively fluid and allowed structural
change without insuperable resistance being offered by large collections of localised
intermediate groups. This fluidity has undoubtedly decreased somewhat over time as factions
of intermediate groups within UMNO have become more powerful over time and have
established decentralised alliances with large Chinese capitalist groups [Jomo & Gomez
1997]. Secondly, by satisfying the Malay intermediate classes through rent transfers from
Malaysian Chinese capitalists and by deploying natural resource rents, the Malaysian state
could offer multinationals locating in the country a credible level of security for property
rights and profits which was untypical by developing country standards. This too proved to
be of great importance in encouraging relatively high-technology firms to locate in Malaysia
in the seventies and late eighties and engage in backward linkages with Malaysian firms.
iv) Thailand. In contrast to Malaysia, the Chinese capitalists of Thailand were much more
ethnically integrated with the Thai middle class. The Malaysian pattern of patron-client
exchanges which separated political from economic exchanges along ethnic lines could not
therefore emerge in Thailand. Thailand was also different from all the countries discussed so
far in not having experienced direct colonial occupation and rule. The absence of anti-
colonial mobilisations explains why the political leadership of its emerging intermediate
classes appears to have been weaker compared to the Indian subcontinent or even
Malaysia. On the other hand, its intermediate classes were not as atomised as they were in
South Korea which was subjected to Japanese colonial strategies. Unlike South Korea
where Japanese land reform displaced rural power blocs, Thailand had powerful networks
of rural politicians who had to be accommodated at a much earlier stage of development.
Thus despite its differences with India, it is quite possible that decentralised networks of
patronage may have developed in Thailand to meet the political demands of powerful and
largely rural clients. Instead, over the last twenty years Thailand seems to have witnessed a
gradual taking over of localised political networks by local capitalists.
PP P P P
Figure 5 Flows within Patron-Client Networks in Thailand
The key arrows in Figure 5 are the ones showing transfers from capitalists to political
factions which allowed many Thai capitalists (almost uniquely in the Asian development
context) to take over and run their own political factions. Thailand has the highest number of
businessmen in parliament in the region [Sidel 1996]. The most important feature
distinguishing the Thai political system has been the ability and willingness of its capitalists to
buy their own political factions. Control over their own factions has not only given Thai
capitalists places in parliament. It has also given them the political power to directly gain
access to favoured subsidies and the allocation of rights, for instance in the form of
franchises and licenses [Doner & Ramsay 1997]. Uniquely perhaps in Asia, the political
power of Thai capitalists frequently places them in the position of patrons within their own
patron-client networks. While Thai capitalists like their counterparts in the other Asian
countries have had to make transfers to the political system as part of the maintenance cost
of their property rights, their payoffs were managed by the “private” political networks
which they controlled.
The Thai pattern of patron-client exchanges (both legal and illegal) has also had identifiable
and important effects in Thailand. The fact that Thai capitalists have been directly involved in
the protection of their property rights meant that resources were not centrally controlled or
allocated by the state to quite the same extent as in the other countries. As a result Thai
capitalism has been based on the acquisition of relatively small scale technology with
property rights over these assets being protected in a decentralised way by this type of
political corruption and patron-client exchanges.
The number of capitalists going into the political fray in Thailand has also been large, a result
of a long history of accumulation by small-scale immigrant Chinese traders many of whom
became extremely wealthy over a long period of time. This has ensured vigorous political
competition between capitalists for the spoils of power which has prevented the political
system from being monopolised by any particular capitalist faction. Instead there has been
vigorous competition for entry into markets through political competition between competing
factions in the parliament and the bureaucracy. Though the political costs of this competition
have been high in the form of rampant corruption and political instability, the long-run
economic performance of Thailand has been relatively better than that of its South Asian
neighbours. If political stability does not collapse entirely, long run economic growth may
eventually make it possible to attenuate the worst effects of Thai political corruption through
constitutional and political reforms.
The proposition discussed in this paper has been that the existence and effects of corruption
cannot be properly studied outside the context of capitalist accumulation and the political
contests which it faces from other emerging classes in the surrounding social milieu.
Economists have typically examined the economic incentives promoting corruption while
leaving to political scientists the task of analysing its political roots. This paper argues that the
forms of economic corruption and their effects are closely tied to the forms of political
corruption. This approach raises fundamental dilemmas for policy approaches to corruption.
The public face of corruption is clearly unacceptable and in the long run it may destroy the
limited legitimacy of some developing country states. On the other hand, the visible face of
corruption is often an integral part of processes of accumulation and social compromise
which are no less ugly in themselves.
Capitalist accumulation in its early phases creates new classes of privileged property holders
whose justifiable claim to be in this position instead of many other potential contenders may
be very limited. The contests they face from emerging middle classes may be difficult to deal
with other than through political side-payments. These side-payments are in turn difficult to
organise publicly and from funds which are open to public scrutiny except to a limited extent
in rare cases such as Malaysia where a convenient legitimising ideology for such transfers
can emerge. This is because while the demands of the intermediate classes may be perfectly
understandable and may occasionally be considered legitimate, they may nevertheless be
difficult to justify on welfare grounds in the face of widespread and much more serious
poverty. Yet payoffs to some members of these classes may be a necessary part of the
social compromise through which the process of transition is negotiated. Thus corruption of
different types may emerge in these contexts as part of a range of exchanges which makes
these systems work despite the obvious economic costs which we can identify by looking at
parts of the system in isolation.
Drawing the line between “acceptable” types of accumulation in early capitalism and
“unacceptable” types is never going to be easy. The more interesting question is to
distinguish between situations where corruption has impoverishing effects from those where
corruption allows rapid growth. We have argued that there are good reasons why
corruption in South Korea may not have been that damaging for growth. While there may be
other reasons for South Korea’s performance as well, our argument suggest that we do not
need to rely entirely on these compensating factors to explain why this economy performed
well despite the presence of substantial corruption. In fact a fair amount of corruption was
involved during the transitional phases of all countries. The real issue is why the transition
process is blocked in some developing countries as in South Asia. Here we have argued that
the patterns of corruption may be integrally implicated which are in turn determined by the
distribution of power between the state, capitalists and intermediate classes. The economic
(as opposed to moral) problem is not corruption per se but the political structures which
generate growth-retarding corruption. This analysis suggests that anti-corruption strategies
which are concerned with the possible effects of corruption on development have to
explicitly identify the underlying political problems. If corruption is politically generated and if
the political structure of societies determines the economic effects of the ensuing corruption,
in countries where development is blocked the only long run solution may be to provoke a
sustained public discussion of such arguments so that new political arrangements can
eventually be constructed.
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