Kung: A Short Professional Biography

James Kung is Issac R. Souede Professor in Economic History in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Before joining HKU, he was tenured as the Yan Ai Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science of Technology (HKUST).


James’ research interests are steeped in the economic history of China, its institutions and its political economy of development. Early on in his career James was attracted to the “New Institutional Economics”, a passion that led to his studying the effects of institutions on development by examining a variety of topics ranging from the failure of a collectivized agriculture to the miraculous rise (and fall) of the township-and-village enterprises in rural China—a social laboratory he found utterly fascinating.


In recent years, James has begun to examine what he considers to be historical issues of paramount importance facing China in its development process. Among the many issues, he is particularly intrigued by the underlying causes of the millennium-long Sino-nomadic conflict and the havoc they wreaked, the impact of the West (especially Protestantism) on modern economic growth, the adoption of maize (a New World crop) and population explosion in late imperial times, and the origins of China’s most important institution—the civil exam system—and its long-term consequences for human capital development. By constructing and analyzing historical data sets hitherto infeasible, James has crafted a niche in what may now be regarded as the “New Economic History”—a paradigm emphasizing the importance of causal relationships between events. His research efforts have been well recognized by the economics profession; much of James’ research in this field was disseminated in prestigious journals ranging from those of general interest, viz. The Review of Economics and Statistics and the Journal of the European Economic Association, to the more specialized ones like The Journal of Economic History, the Journal of Economic Growth, and the Journal of Development Economics, among others.


But James’ intellectual interests extend beyond economic history. Perhaps steeped in the tradition of classical economists, James sees economics and politics as deeply intertwined and thus the political economy of China is another area that he has long been engrossed in. Using the Great Leap Famine of 1959–1961 as the context and associated data, James cogently demonstrates just how political institutions and policies could powerfully shape the economic behavior of government bureaucrats (in much the same way that managers in private enterprises are incentivized). His work is path-breaking, as it challenges (for the first time) the traditional belief that political radicalism is largely the dictator’s choice. James’ intellectual entrepreneurship was rewarded when the American Political Science Review—the top journal in political science—published his work; he is, in fact, the first (and thus far the only) academic from Asia to have disseminated in that journal. In a similar vein, James has ambitiously embarked on a project to crack the tough nut of empirically proving corruption in an economy that has otherwise experienced decades of sustained “miraculous” growth. One of these papers will soon appear in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.


The cumulative impact of James’ research is also borne out by the many invitations he has received over the years, including at least 50 lectures and talks across the globe in the past five years, not to mention the competitive research grants he has received throughout his career. Recently, James has been elected as a member of the Association of Comparative Economics and is now serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Comparative Economics.


James is just as passionate about teaching and training students as he is about research. To demonstrate, James twice won the Best Teaching Award in the School of Humanities and Social Science at HKUST (2001 and 2011). But what makes him most proud and honored is that he has successfully trained many PhD students during his career at HKUST and placed them in leading universities in Hong Kong (HKU, CUHK, and HKBU), as well as such highly ranked universities as Peking University and Fudan University.