The University of Michigan has been involved in Chinese politics since 1881 when university president James B. Angell served as the United States Minister to China.  The master’s program in Chinese Studies and the highly-regarded Asia Library complement research and courses in Political Science which focus on Chinese political systems and issues.  China  has taken center stage in the academic, political and business worlds, creating the need for new scholarship and research.    

“This new position is a special opportunity for me… because the University of Michigan is where Michel Oksenberg taught for many years. He produced an entire generation of people who study China. His legacy is really amazing if you think about all the top scholars in the field today,” remarked Ang.

Ang’s dissertation chair, Jean Oi of Stanford University was Oksenberg’s student. Ang’s intellectual affinity for the department was one of the primary reasons why she chose to move to Ann Arbor from New York.

What Explains China’s Economic Development?

Ang is currently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation. In the book, she questions why China’s state-led capitalism thrived despite the glaring absence of “Weberian” legal-rational bureaucracies. Even though many observers have credited local governments for promoting China’s economic growth, just as many have criticized the same public agents for being corrupt and predatory. How can these state actors behave in simultaneously growth-promoting and rents-extracting ways?  Ang was intrigued by this puzzle during the course of her dissertation.

Her question led her to examine informal incentives and rules that govern bureaucratic behavior in a non-transparent, authoritarian administration. In a setting where local governments strove to achieve growth but faced tough budgetary constraints (especially after fiscal recentralization in 1994) and ever-growing personnel to feed, she found that informal institutions organically evolved within the state to support conflicting aims of governance.

  • First, an informal public compensation system for rank-and-file cadres expanded and institutionalized, rewarding public agents both for promoting the local economy and for extracting petty rents for their respective offices (by imposing fees and fines on firms and erecting regulatory barriers against them).
  • Second, she found that, contrary to popular perceptions, local agencies did not generally extract revenue for themselves in flagrant disregard of the law; rather, a whole industry of state policies was formulated to sanction “self-financing” endeavors. Thus, compared to China’s earlier phase of reform (before 1993) and to other quintessential predatory states, petty predatory behavior in the 1990s and beyond became increasingly regulated, yet not eliminated.

Ang’s research aims to challenge well-received wisdom in academia and policy circles that development requires, as a pre-requisite, legal rational public institutions free from petty predation. Her study of China suggests that at early stages of development, transitional administrative structures, though risky and less-than-ideal, are more pragmatic than “international best practices” that are either incompatible with the realities of developing countries, or worse, may backfire. “While much is already known about the set of first-best governing institutions that support market development, much less is known about second-best options. And China happens to be the richest and most exciting laboratory for the study of these second-best options,” said Professor Ang.

Teaching and Courses on China

Prof. Ang is currently teaching an undergraduate course on China, “State and Market in Contemporary China” and a graduate seminar, “Comparative Politics and Reform in China.” Her more recent projects explore patterns of regulatory inspections, how connections with the state influences firms’ operations and use of law, as well as the changing economic role of local governments.

About Yuen Yuen Ang

Ang received a Ph.D. in Political Science at Stanford University in January 2010. Her dissertation was titled “State, Market, and Bureau-Contracting in Reform China.” She graduated from Colorado College in 2002, focusing then on political theory, with Summa Cum Laude. Before plunging into her study of state bureaucracies in China, she had served as a civil servant in the Ministry of Trade & Industry in Singapore, during which she was involved in negotiations of the ASEAN-China free trade agreement.