I am Issac R. Souede Professor in Economic History in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Before joining HKU, I was tenured as the Yan Ai Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science of Technology (HKUST).
My research interests are steeped in the economic history of China, its institutions and its political economy of development. Early on in my career, I was attracted to the “New Institutional Economics”, a passion that led to my 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 I found utterly fascinating.
In recent years, I have begun to examine what I consider to be historical issues of paramount importance facing China in its development process. Among the many issues, I am 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, I have crafted a niche in what may now be regarded as the “New Economic History”— a paradigm emphasizing the importance of causal relationships between events.
My intellectual interests extend beyond economic history. Perhaps steeped in the tradition of classical economists, I see economics and politics as deeply intertwined and thus the political economy of China is another area that I have long been engrossed in. Using the Great Leap Famine of 1959–1961 as the context and associated data, I cogently demonstrate 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). My work is path-breaking, as it challenges (for the first time) the traditional belief that political radicalism is largely the dictator’s choice. In a similar vein, I have 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.