I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. My research integrates three distinct and usually separate fields—international development, Chinese political economy, and complex systems—to advance a new research and policy agenda: adaptive development. I apply the lens of complex systems to revisit fundamental problems of development, using China as my primary case.
Driving my research are these central problems of development: How did some societies make the dual transition from poverty-and-backwardness to prosperity-and-modernity? Given that poverty, weak institutions, and corruption are mutually self-reinforcing (that is, poor countries are weak, and weak countries are poor), how is it possible to escape the poverty trap?
Standard development theories, practices, as well as methods, assume a linear causal logic: it is either good governance that leads to economic growth or vice versa.
Departing from this convention, my research reveals that the first step of development is, paradoxically, to harness what we normally perceive as “weak/wrong/backward” institutions to kick-start markets. I challenge the conventional practice of evaluating the goodness of institutions by a single benchmark: that of wealthy democracies. Instead, I show that normatively weak institutions can be functionally strong.
Furthermore, my research underscores that although effective adaptation is universally desirable, it does not automatically happen. Indeed, many organizations refuse or fail to adapt. Effective adaptation requires certain supporting conditions, or what I term “meta-institutions.” Hence, a second line of my research investigates which meta-institutions are required to support adaptive problem-solving. Ironically, the textbook case of adaptive development in the face of complex problems is China’s authoritarian, communist party-state.
My book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Political Economy, 2016), lays the foundation for my research agenda. It won the 2017 Peter Katzenstein Book Prize for outstanding first book in international relations, comparative politics, or political economy. The prize committee describes the book as “a field-shifting move to non-linear complex processes.” Reviews of my book are found at this link.
My work has received awards and support from various institutions. I received two Early Career Fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Eldersveld Prize for outstanding research contributions from the University of Michigan. I am also winner of a global essay competition on “The Future of Development Assistance,” sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. My new projects are funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation and IBM Center for the Business of Government.
Building off my earlier work, I am working on new projects that:
- Revisits the relationship between corruption and capitalism (funded by Smith Richardson Foundation, International Program)
- Blends qualitative research with big data (funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government)
- Uses machine learning methods to study adaptation-authorizing policy signals in China
Apart from my scholarly work, I enjoy public engagement and learning from practitioners. I’ve written op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, Project Syndicate, The Conversation, Devex, Straits Times and other outlets. I am named a Public Intellectuals Fellow by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and served on the United Nations Expert Group on Eradicating Poverty in 2017.
A native of Singapore, I attended Colorado College and received my PhD from Stanford University. Prior to joining Michigan, I was on the faculty of Columbia University SIPA, where I taught political and economic development.