China’s Gilded Age



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Why has China grown so fast for so long despite vast corruption?

In China’s Gilded Age, Yuen Yuen Ang argues that not all types of corruption hurt growth, nor do they cause the same kind of harm. Ang unbundles corruption into four varieties: petty theft, grand theft, speed money, and access money. While the first three types impede growth, access money—elite exchanges of power and profit—cuts both ways: it stimulates investment and growth but produces serious risks for the economy and political system. Since market opening, corruption in China has evolved toward access money.

Using a range of data sources, the author explains the evolution of Chinese corruption, how it differs from the West and other developing countries, and how Xi’s anticorruption campaign could affect growth and governance.

In this formidable yet accessible book, Ang challenges one-dimensional measures of corruption. By unbundling the problem and adopting a comparative-historical lens, she reveals that the rise of capitalism was not accompanied by the eradication of corruption, but rather by its evolution from thuggery and theft to access money.

In doing so, she changes the way we think about corruption and capitalism, not only in China but around the world.


Read the Introduction Chapter here | pdf


Conclusion, “Rethinking 9 Big Questions,” Narrated by Prof. Alice Evans

Listen on iTunes and Spotify


China’s Corrupt Meritocracy,” Project Syndicate, 4 October 2019. | English (pdf) & Chinese (pdf)

“Unbundling Corruption: Revisiting Six Questions on Corruption,” Global Perspectives, April 2020 | Link (open access)


Interview in The Wire China (31 May 2020), “Yuen Yuen Ang on the Evolution of Corruption in China,” by David Barboza | pdf

Interview in The Diplomat (30 April 2020), “Yuen Yuen Ang on Corruption and Growth in China,” by Shannon Tiezzi| pdf

The Wall Street Journal, “China’s Corruption Paradox” (Nov 1, 2019), by Nathaniel Taplin: Yuen Yuen Ang… notes that many local officials nabbed in the corruption dragnet were considered star performers before their downfall… her forthcoming study shows that 40% of those felled by corruption charges had been promoted in the previous five years.”


“This path-breaking study will change how we think about the link between corruption and growth… original and convincing.”

-Bruce Dickson, George Washington University

“Yuen Yuen Ang has emerged as her generation’s leading analyst and public interpreter of China’s development experience, and the distinctive strategies underpinning it. Her latest offering… is broadly important, intellectually solid, immensely interesting and uniquely accessible to scholars, lay readers and practitioners alike. This will be an academic blockbuster.”

-Michael Woolcock, World Bank and Harvard University

“Skillfully unbundling forms of corruption and placing China’s “Gilded Age” firmly in comparative and historical perspective, Yuen Yuen Ang brings a fresh and penetrating new perspective to one of the central puzzles of the current era—and reminds Americans of the deep-seated corruption of their own early period of rapid industrialization.”

 -Andrew G. Walder, Stanford University

“Both Xi Jinping and critics of the Chinese government agree corruption is bad for development. Transgressing this simplistic notion, Ang shows that not all corruption is equally bad for growth. Her brilliant analysis explains China’s hyper growth and warns of the troubles ahead.”

-Ho-Fung Hung, John Hopkins University

“This book will generate substantial debate. Ang stakes out a unique position in the debate over the role of corruption in China’s economic development and the effect it will have on China’s future. Ang makes a valuable contribution in unbundling corruption, methodically demonstrating the ways that both corruption and corrupt actors differ. After reading this book, no one should be able to maintain that corruption is a unitary phenomenon; it manifests itself in many ways.”

-Philip Nichols, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania