Yu Zeng

Ph.D. Student in Comparative Politics

Dissertation Title: Stability Above All: 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 in the context of economic transformation. Scholars have explained market reform by citing crisis induced by exogenous shocks, democratic accountability, and bureaucratic capacity. I instead argue that persistent social unrest can produce endogenous institutional reform under autonomous leadership. By examining land market reform in China as a least-likely case, I argue that reform initiation and consolidation require two interactive conditions. First, rulers learn from sustained social disorder to recreate the mandate for political legitimacy. Second, rulers are autonomous from the influence of vested interests in bureaucracy and business. I conclude that it is the combination of democratic and authoritarian elements that make economic transformation both possible and challenging. I test this claim using a multilevel mixed methods research design. I trace the origin of land ownership and the process of land commodification in a macro-historical analysis. I find that social instability pressed Chinese leaders to reduce state monopoly on land ownership and sales when they had the capacity to exercise autonomous power. But without a threatening, organized opposition, autonomous leaders opened rent-seeking opportunities for bureaucratic and business elites. In addition, based on my 19-month field research, I offer a quantitative analysis of land market liberalization across Chinese cities and several case studies. The main finding is that the intensity of land conflict is positively associated with the probability of land market liberalization in cities with low land dependency or politically connected leaders. I test the learning mechanism by using a survey of 348 county-level party secretaries, providing a rare large-scale empirical analysis on 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