Before markets opened in 1978, China was an impoverished planned economy governed by a Maoist bureaucracy. In just three decades it evolved into the world’s second-largest economy and is today guided by highly entrepreneurial bureaucrats. In How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, Yuen Yuen Ang explains this astonishing metamorphosis. Rather than insist that either strong institutions of good governance foster markets or that growth enables good governance, Ang lays out a new, dynamic framework for understanding development broadly. Successful development, she contends, is a coevolutionary process in which markets and governments mutually adapt.
By mapping this coevolution, Ang reveals a startling conclusion: poor and weak countries can escape the poverty trap by first harnessing weak institutions—features that defy norms of good governance—to build markets. Further, she stresses that adaptive processes, though essential for development, do not automatically occur. Highlighting three universal roadblocks to adaptation, Ang identifies how Chinese reformers crafted enabling conditions for effective improvisation.
How China Escaped the Poverty Trap offers the most complete synthesis to date of the numerous interacting forces that have shaped China’s dramatic makeover and the problems it faces today. Looking beyond China, Ang also traces the coevolutionary sequence of development in late medieval Europe, antebellum United States, and contemporary Nigeria, and finds surprising parallels among these otherwise disparate cases. Indispensable to all who care about development, this groundbreaking book challenges the convention of linear thinking and points to an alternative path out of poverty traps.
Introduction: How Did Development Actually Happen?
Part 1 FRAMEWORK AND BUILDING BLOCKS
1. Mapping Coevolution
2. Directed Improvisation
Part 2 DIRECTION
3. Balancing Variety and Uniformity
4. Franchising the Bureaucracy
Part 3 IMPROVISATION
5. From Building to Preserving Markets
6. Connecting First Movers and Laggards
Conclusion: How Development Actually Happened Beyond China
Appendix A: Steps for Mapping Coevolution
Appendix B: Interviews
"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 which has the potential to influence future studies of institutional and economic change beyond China."
"While adaptive approaches to development have become new buzzwords, Yuen Yuen's work brings rigor to this conversation.... This analytical lens has enormous potential for thinking through the adaptive challenge, whether at the national level, subnational level or sectoral level."
The World Bank
"The book combines methodological rigour, employing a complexity perspective hitherto unknown in standard political economy analyses... with rich original empirical data drawn from more than 400 interviews.... This is an important book with a bold thesis that, at its most ambitious, demands a rethinking of the history and evolution of capitalism.... In terms of policy implications, Ang's thesis has the potential to upend much that the global development establishment holds dear."
The Straits Times
"How China Escaped the Poverty Trap... is an original and insightful take on what is perhaps the biggest development puzzle of my lifetime."
Building State Capability Blog
"This book is a triumph, opening a window onto the political economy of China’s astonishing rise that takes as its starting point systems and complexity. Its lessons apply far beyond China’s borders."
"Ang provides specialists and nonspecialists alike with a fresh inside-the-black-box account of how the Chinese state... has actually practiced (not merely preached) innovation, problem solving, and effective implementation.... Future studies of bureaucratic life in China and elsewhere must reckon seriously with Ang's account."
"As if explaining modern Chinese economic development was not enough of a challenge, Ang has two even loftier goals. The first is methodological. She expresses a frustration with political science's causality obsession and modeling approaches that deliver isolated snapshots of complex processes.... Ang's second ambition is to apply this coevolutionary schema to how we understand economic development generally."
Perspectives on Politics
"This book is an invaluable addition to the scholarship on the political economy of development."
"How China Escaped the Poverty Trap addresses an enduring question in political economy: Why are some nations rich and others poor? This core question is explored through a secondary question about the sequential relationship between effective governance and economic growth: Did growth follow or result from state capacity? Yuen Yuen Ang states that the government and economy coevolved, meaning they adapted to each other. She identifies a three-step sequence to this coevolutionary process and shows, surprisingly, that the first step of development is actually to build markets with 'weak' institutions, that is, features inconsistent with norms of good governance. Ang crafts this original and compelling argument using a rich base of fieldwork, including more than three hundred interviews that introduce readers to real voices on the ground."
Kellee S. Tsai, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and Johns Hopkins University, author of Capitalism without Democracy
"How China Escaped the Poverty Trap truly offers game-changing ideas for the analysis and implementation of socio-economic development and should have a major impact across many social sciences."
Zelizer Best Book in Economic Sociology Prize Committee
"Ang's project contributes to multiple debates, including but not limited to China. Theoretically, her systematic engagement with diverse literatures circumvents disagreement over which came first, democracy or development, to make a field-shifting move to non-linear complex processes."
Peter Katzenstein Book Prize Committee
"Sometimes the best way to answer a difficult question is to ask a different question. In this book, instead of asking the usual question—How has China developed despite having low-quality institutions?—Yuen Yuen Ang asks how China has used those institutions to kick-start economic development, which then set off a mutually reinforcing cycle between institutional development and economic development. This innovative and sophisticated book is an outstanding contribution not only to the study of Chinese economic development but also to the long-running debate on the role of institutions in economic development."
Ha-Joon Chang, University of Cambridge, author of Kicking Away the Ladder and Economics
"Development economists have struggled to explain the extraordinary growth of the state-led Chinese economy—despite apparent violations of the usual 'micro rules.' Yuen Yuen Ang unpacks the process with convincing detail, explaining the underlying logic of a story so apparently different from the textbook models. Are there lessons here for today’s low-income economies? How China Escaped the Poverty Trap is worth reading with that in mind."
Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development
"In this major new contribution, Yuen Yuen Ang offers a fresh synthetic explanation for the stunning economic transformation of China in recent decades. She shows how China experienced sustained rapid economic development by transforming weak institutions in ways that strengthened states and markets simultaneously. This book points toward a potential model of growth for other countries and is a must-read for all scholars interested in explaining development trajectories in the Global South."
James Mahoney, Northwestern University, co-author of Advances in Comparative-Historical Analysis