In This Review

How China Escaped the Poverty Trap
How China Escaped the Poverty Trap
By Yuen Yuen Ang
Cornell University Press, 2016, 344 pp.
Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local  Relations in China
Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China
By Jae Ho Chung
Columbia University Press, 2016, 323 pp.
Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China
Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China
By Julian Gewirtz
Harvard University Press, 2017, 416 pp.

Are there lessons in the Chinese miracle for other countries that want to surge from deep poverty to advanced development in a matter of decades? Surveying the experience of three Chinese counties, Ang cuts through the usual debate about whether good governance or economic growth should come first, seeing a more cyclical process at work. First, authorities allowed markets to emerge even though they were hampered by corruption, weak property rights, and underregulation. Market activity then generated problems that required officials to build stronger institutions, which in turn fostered the further development of markets. 

Given China’s vastness, this process could unfold only because local officials were incentivized to innovate constantly, no matter the risk—a process Ang labels “franchised decentralization.” Chung’s book is the most complete account available of China’s unique combination of centralized policymaking and delegated implementation, a setup that emerged after years of experimentation by reform-era leaders seeking to overcome the flaws of Mao’s hypercentralized system. Today, China has four levels of administration below the central government, allowing wide discretion in implementing economic policy but imposing tight control over other issues, such as population planning.

Ang and Chung focus on the local level; Gewirtz provides a dramatic and freshly detailed account of the terrifying years from 1976 to 1993, when China’s central leaders held their breath and pushed their country into the unknown by beginning to liberalize its economy. He focuses especially on the boldness of Zhao Ziyang, who served as premier from 1980 to 1987. Zhao sought advice from foreign economists, putting their ideas into practice despite opposition from a conservative faction that was understandably suspicious of Western admonitions to abandon state planning and compromise the country’s economic autonomy. This is a story not of Western influence seeping irresistibly into Chinese minds but of Chinese leaders actively reaching out for ideas. It is also a story of fierce political struggles conducted in the form of theoretical debates. Although built around personalities, it delivers a great deal of insight into how China’s mix of socialism and capitalism works. 

Together, these three books show that China’s transformation cannot be attributed to a single cause; rather, it arose from a contingent, interactive process—Ang calls it “directed improvisation.” She formalizes this insight by using a novel analytic method that she terms “coevolutionary narrative,” which has the potential to influence future studies of institutional and economic change beyond China. The Chinese system has proved to be remarkably agile, but creative adaptation is not an easy lesson for others—or even present-day China—to apply. The process can become bogged down, which might be happening in China today, as President Xi Jinping presses the country’s bureaucrats to carry out even riskier reforms.