Career Incentives and Political Radicalism During China’s Great Leap Famine

April 20, 2011, 8 a.m.

In The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura, James Kai-Sing Kung and Shuo Chen argue that the career incentives of elites can explain the varying political radicalism across China's provinces during its Great Leap Famine.  The paper provides no useful advice for democracy assistance practitioners per se, but it does provide further evidence for the importance of democracy and governance work.  First, its narrative demonstrates that politics occur even in authoritarian countries; a useful rejoinder to those who argue that democratic institutions can lead to excess populism and economic policies that are harmful to development.   It also provides evidence that incentives matter, and institutional design, not personality, plays a large role in governance decisions.  The authors describe the differences in career politicians who moved their way up the ranks of the Communist Party.  Using excessive grain procurement as a dependent variable, they find that an officials rank can explain a significant level of their "radicalism" with regards to policy.  (Excess production being wasteful yet helpful in signalling loyalty to Mao's agenda).

A salient feature of China's Great Leap Famine is that political radicalism varied enormously across provinces. Using excessive grain procurement as a pertinent measure, we find that such variations were patterned systematically on the political career incentives of Communist Party officials rather than the conventionally assumed ideology or personal idiosyncrasies. Political rank alone can explain 16.83% of the excess death rate: the excess procurement ratio of provinces governed by alternate members of the Central Committee was about 3% higher than in provinces governed by full members, or there was an approximate 1.11% increase in the excess death rate. The stronger career incentives of alternate members can be explained by the distinctly greater privileges, status, and power conferred only on the rank of full members of the Central Committee and the “entry barriers” to the Politburo that full members faced.

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