Yuen Yuen Ang, "China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption" (Cambridge UP, 2020)


Today I talked to Yuen Yuen Ang, a Professor of political science and China expert at the University of Michigan. We spoke already in summer 2019 to discuss her previous book: How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. In that book she anticipated the theme of this book: corruption. She explains that 'contrary to conventional wisdom, rich nations became rich by first eliminating corruption, the real history is that corruption was never eliminated, it changes in form and structure as an economy becomes richer.' We started our conversation with a definition of corruption and her typologies: petty theft, grand theft, speed money, access money.

The argument in China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption (Cambridge University Press, 2020) has been widely taken out of context, as ‘corruption is good for growth’.  I asked Yuen to clarify. She believes that not all types of corruption carry the same harm and have the same impact on growth. She explained this with the analogy of types of drugs.

Corruption is a complex phenomenon. She argues that we fail to understand it when we adopt one-dimensional measures. Some countries appear free of corruption but instead they are just characterized by more sophisticated forms of corruption. Yuen gave us a short outlook on the state of research in the field of corruption and her contribution.

The book, 150 pages organized in seven chapters, is rich of tables and pictures. Yuen created a database with hundreds of party leaders and bureaucrats, and their fate. We learn about tigers and flies, in the terminology of Xi’s campaign against corruption. 

In your previous book, she described the strange case of China’s meritocracy. Despite absence of democracy and freedom of press, since Deng, in most cases, the Chinese Communist Party has been selecting a good ruling elite. Overall, the promotion of local cadres and their careers from village level to Zhongnanhai has been based on their ability to meet objective, measurable targets. To some extent, corruption is the opposite of the ideal of meritocracy. I have asked what is the interplay between the two in China.

In the section Chinese Bureaucracy 101, Yuen argues that we commonly use public administration theories that are based on ahistorical and wester-centred principles. This is not helpful to understand China she concludes.

The book ends with conclusions in the form of five questions. In fact, the very end is a final, timely, note on the risk of a new cold war between the USA and China. Yuen argues that stereotypes and misunderstandings are dangerously fueling commercial and political confrontation. Her study on corruption, and the parallel between China’s and the American Gilded age, is an example of how perhaps China is not that exceptional, exotic and hence dangerous to us. 

This is a great new book that contributes to the study of corruption in two ways: with a methodological innovation and with a comparative historical analysis. It is a must have for the libraries of economists, sociologists, political scientists and much more. It is also accessible to non specialists and a pleasure to read.

Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

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