Elite Capture: How Decentralization and Informal Institutions Weaken Property Rights in Rural ChinaWorld Politics. 68:3 (2016): 383 - 412.

Communal and civic institutions at the local level, such as lineage associations, temples, churches, or social clubs, can in theory make it easier for citizens to monitor officials and hold them accountable. However, in this article I argue that strong social institutions also empower local elites, who can use their informal influence to control their group and capture local institutions. Drawing on evidence from case studies of Chinese villages, I show that lineage group leaders who become village officials use their combination of social and political authority to confiscate villagers' land. Evidence from a survey experiment suggests that endorsement of a land confiscation plan by lineage elites elicits greater compliance with property seizures. A national survey shows that when a lineage leader becomes a village cadre, it is associated with a 14 to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of a land confiscation. The findings show how informal institutions and local civil society can be tools of top-down political control. 

Supplementary Material

Colonial Legacies and State Institutions in China: Evidence from a Natural Experiment. Comparative Political Studies50:4 (2017): 434 - 463.

What is the legacy of Japanese colonial rule in East Asia? In this article, I use a geographic regression discontinuity design to examine of the long-run effects of Japanese rule over northern China. I find that the Japanese colonization of northern China had a positive long-run effect on state institutions -- with persistent increases in schooling, health, and bureaucratic density. I also find suggestive evidence that colonization led to long-run increases in wealth, as measured by census data and nighttime luminosity. The positive legacy of Japanese colonization in northern China suggests that intense state building efforts can pay long-run dividends, even in the context of a brutal and extractive regime.

Supplementary Material

Racing to the Bottom or to the Top? Decentralization, Revenue Pressures, and Governance Reform in China.  World Development. Volume 95, July 2017: 164-176. With Denise van der Kamp and Peter Lorentzen.

China’s decentralization has been praised for promoting inter-jurisdictional competition that incentivizes local officials to promote economic development. The downside of decentralization is that it enables these same local authorities to slow or block implementation of centrally-mandated governance reforms, especially when these may negatively affect local development goals. We suggest that China’s fiscal system and promotion system have created mismatched incentives that encourage cash-strapped local authorities to disregard central governance reforms. Specifically, we show that cities with weaker revenue bases were slower to implement new, centrally-mandated environmental transparency regulations. 

Supplementary Material


The Curse of Early Empire: How A Meritocratic Bureaucracy Stifled Long-Run Growth in China

Street-Level Autocrats: How Socially Embedded Bureaucrats Strengthen Repressive Capacity in China