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Yuen Yuen Ang is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 2018, she is named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, for “high-caliber scholarship that applies fresh perspectives to some of the most pressing issues of our times.”

Professor Ang is a political scientist who applies insights from “complex adaptive systems” (or complexity) to the study of economic and political development, centering on the problem of how poor and weak states can escape poverty, and the strategies and institutional designs that enable adaptive problem-solving.

She specializes in China and emerging markets. On China, her expertise lies in the economy, bureaucratic politics, adaptation within the party-state, corruption, and the nation’s growing role in international development.

Research agenda

Drawing on complexity and systems thinking, Ang’s work challenges the conventional linear logic of development: either “fix governance first” or “stimulate growth first.” She also contests the norm of bench-marking the quality of governance/institutions worldwide by a single standard—that of wealthy Western countries.

Shifting the terms of debate, Ang argues that instead of fixating on the chicken-and-egg problem of whether growth or good governance comes first, we should turn our investigation to two new lines of inquiry:

  • How do markets first emerge in the absence of good governance or state capacity, and then subsequently evolve? Can some apparent obstacles to development in poor, weak states be turned into strengths that fit their conditions?
  • What are the necessary conditions for effective adaptation? How is it possible to promote creativity and innovation in the unlikely settings of authoritarian regimes, poor economies, and even fragile states?

This research agenda won her the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, which will take her research beyond China to other emerging markets around the world.

Book

Ang’s prize-winning book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (2016) lays the foundation for her research program. Drawing on China’s experience, Ang argues that the way to escape the poverty trap (the vicious cycle of poverty and weak/wrong institutions), is, paradoxically, by first repurposing weak/wrong institutions to kick-start new markets. The ability to adapt in the development process requires an enabling system that she calls “directed improvisation.” In China, this manifested within the single party-state as a mixture of top-down direction from Beijing and bottom-up improvisation by local officials.

How China Escaped the Poverty Trap won the 2017 Peter Katzenstein Book Prize for outstanding book in political economy, and the 2018 Viviana Zelizer Best Book Award in Economic Sociology. It was also named “Best of Books 2017” by Foreign Affairs. The Katzenstein prize committee described the book as “a field-shifting move to non-linear complex processes,” and the Zelizer committee as “offering game-changing ideas [that] should have a major impact across many social sciences.” The book was reviewed by many international development experts, as well as by scholars in political science, economics, history, and China studies. The Chinese edition is forthcoming in July 2018.

Apart from her book, Ang’s research has appeared in The Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, The China Quarterly, and other scholarly outlets. She won a global essay contest on “The Future of Development Assistance,” sponsored by the Gates Foundation, and the Eldersveld Prize for outstanding research from the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science. She is also a two-time ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies)/Andrew Mellon Foundation Fellow.

Public engagement

A frequently invited speaker, Ang has presented her research and ideas all over the world, at various academic, global development, policy, and corporate venues. She has written op-eds and blogs for Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, The International Economy, Project Syndicate, World Bank Governance Blog, UNDP Transformation Series, and other outlets. Her most recent essay appears in Foreign Affairs’ issue on “Is Democracy Dying?”, in which she characterizes China as an “autocracy with democratic characteristics.”

New projects

Currently, she is writing up a second book that explains China’s paradox of economic boom and rampant corruption, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation. Building off her first book, this book will feature a new cross-national survey that “unbundles corruption” into qualitatively different varieties.

Another branch of her research is on developing new mixed methods to analyze non-linear, adaptive processes in political economy. This has led her to explore machine learning methods, and ways of combining big data and “thick data” (immersive qualitative research). This work is supported by a research award from the IBM Center for the Business of Government; a report is forthcoming.

Personal

Ang is a proud and grateful graduate of Colorado College and Stanford University. Before joining Michigan, she was on the faculty of Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. She reads anything interesting, from quantum physics, biology, philosophy, history, biographies, novels, plays, to re-reading Roald Dahl’s delightful stories.