Yu Zeng

Ph.D. Student in Comparative Politics

Dissertation Title: Learning to Reform: The Politics of Land Market Reform in China 

Committee: Avery Goldstein (co-chair), Rudra Sil (co-chair), Devesh Kapur, and Yuhua Wang. 

Summary: My dissertation asks why politicians build efficiency-enhancing institutions that threaten to eliminate their rent-seeking opportunities. Many scholars have associated civil society with desirable political and economic changes, suggesting that authoritarian regimes, which do not give much space for civil society, are not responsive to citizens’ needs and thus having a poor quality of governance. I argue that, in non-democracies, the possibility of persistent social unrest can be a functional substitute for civil society, motivating rulers to learn more about the sources of citizens’ discontent and to therefore undertake reforms that can boost their reputations for effective governance even if curtailing their rent-seeking opportunities. By examining land market reform in China, I find that gradual economic transformation requires rulers to learn from sustained instability while remaining independent of vested interests. My research implies that, despite institutional differences between democracies and autocracies, there is a common mechanism hinged on rulers’ fear and learning that opens pathways to efficiency-enhancing reforms, even if these reforms, which benefit the citizenry at large, are not in the obvious interest of ruling elites.

I test my theory using a multilevel mixed methods research design. First, I trace the origin of land ownership and the process of land commodification in a macro-historical analysis. I find that fear of rural instability led Chinese leaders to reduce state monopoly on land ownership and sales when they had the capacity to exercise power autonomously. But when land conflicts became less frequent, autonomous leaders opened rent-seeking opportunities for bureaucratic and business elites. Second, based on my 19-month field research, I conduct a quantitative analysis of land market liberalization across Chinese cities. I find that, in cities with political leaders independent of landed interests, land conflict intensity is positively associated with land market liberalization. Finally, to test the learning mechanism, I use data from an original survey of 348 county-level party secretaries, providing a rare large-scale opinion study of Chinese local leaders.

University of Pennsylvania
The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics
133 S. 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215
Phone: (215) 898-7641

Nicholas Sambanis Chair
Alex Weisiger Graduate Chair
Daniel Hopkins Undergraduate Chair