Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Political Science

First Advisor

Avery Goldstein

Second Advisor

Rudra Sil


When do political elites interested in maximizing gains adopt efficiency-enhancing reforms that may eliminate their rent-seeking opportunities? Based on variations in the character and scope of land market reforms in China, this dissertation seeks to identify the necessary conditions for economic reform that are more inclusive – that incorporate mechanisms to benefit the rural poor. I argue that political elites adopt such reforms when they are autonomous from other vested interests and learn to embrace greater fairness in response to recurrent expressions of social grievances. The dissertation employs a multilevel mixed methods research design. It first traces the origin of land ownership and the process of land commodification, demonstrating how the fear of ongoing rural unrest drives Chinese leaders to reduce the state monopoly on land but only when these leaders are relatively autonomous from powerful landed interests. In the absence of local contention, however, leaders are likely to expand rent-seeking opportunities for bureaucratic elites as a way to strengthen the state’s control over the economy. This argument is advanced through a comparative study of several provincial cases, based on nineteen months of fieldwork, including over a hundred elite interviews. A quantitative analysis of land market liberalization across Chinese cities confirms that, in locales with political leaders tied to higher-level authorities and thus autonomous from local landed interests, land conflict intensity is positively correlated with the probability of the liberalization reform. Finally, to assess whether local elites learned to shift their position, I use data from an original survey of 346 county-level party secretaries, providing a rare large-scale opinion study of Chinese local leaders. The general argument may be tested in other developing or transitional economies beset by rising inequalities by examining whether more inclusive reforms – that benefit a wider range of citizens and restrict rent-seeking – are more likely when crafted in response to calls for fairness from below rather than when generated by top-down directives or bargains among elites.

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