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How does development actually happen? Is it strong institutions of good governance that lead to growth, or growth that enables good governance? This book rejects linear, canonical theories of development that either argue “growth first,” or “good governance first,” or that “history leads to good governance to growth.” By unpacking the processes of China’s transformation since market opening in 1978, it reveals that the first step of development, counter-intuitively, is to build markets using normatively weak institutions. Underlying this process of adaptive development is “directed improvisation”—the combination of top-down direction with bottom-up improvisation within the Chinese state. This is the first book to apply the lens of complexity (complex adaptive systems) to the study of economic and institutional coevolution, focusing but not limited to China.


Winner of 2017 Peter Katzenstein Book Prize for outstanding book in international relations, comparative politics, or political economy

Winner of 2018 Viviana Zelizer Best Book in Economic Sociology, Awarded by the American Sociological Association

 Foreign Affairs Best of Books 2017


“a field-shifting move to non-linear complex processes”

– Katzenstein Book Prize Committee

“a bold and innovative framework for understanding economic development… 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 Book Prize Committee

“This book is a triumph, opening a window onto the political economy of China’s astonishing rise that takes as its starting point systems thinking and complexity. Its lessons apply far beyond China’s borders.”

Duncan Green (Oxfam & LSE), LSE Review of Books

“A big, powerful, challenging work. Its argument is intended to travel, and it will.”

Marc Blecher (Oberlin College, Political Science), The China Journal

“An original and insightful take on what is perhaps the biggest development puzzle of my lifetime.”

Lant Pritchett (Harvard Kennedy School, Development Economics), Harvard Building State Capability Blog

“Her key conceptual innovation is to bring complexity theory into the study of economic growth… offers both critique and creative use of some important arguments in economic history.”

Bin Wong (UCLA, History), Journal of Economic History

“[This has] the potential to influence future studies of institutional and economic change beyond China.”

– Andrew Nathan (Columbia University), Foreign Affairs

“She has set an admirably high bar and capably filled a conspicuous scholarly vacuum. It is encouraging that the development policy community is also taking note.”

Michael Woolcock (Harvard Kennedy School & World Bank), Governance

“While adaptive approaches to development have become new buzzwords, Yuen Yuen’s work brings rigor to this conversation.”

– Yongmei Zhou (World Bank, Director of the World Development Report 2017), World Bank Let’s Talk Development Blog

“Using her impressive evidence collected via hundreds of interviews throughout China, Ang’s How China Escaped the Poverty Trap brings insights to bear on theoretical debates in China studies, development studies and even social science methodology.”

John Donaldson (Singapore Management University, Political Science), The China Quarterly

“A very compelling account of how the Chinese bureaucracy has evolved in ways that promote growth during the past thirty five years.”

– Daniel Berkowitz (University of Pittsburgh, Economics), Journal of Economic Literature