This dissertation seeks to enhance our understanding of the nature and evolution of China’s property rights regime over the past thirty years of market economy reforms. I ask and answer three core interrelated questions about the country’s property rights rules governing the ownership, use, control, transfer and profit from property (e.g. land, labour, capital, fixed assets, techology and ideas). These questions are: (i) What is the nature of China’s property rights regime? (ii) Why has this institutionally ambiguous property rights regime persisted despite predictions for convergence with global capitalist norms of private property rights? (iii) How has this ambiguous property rights regime evolved in way that permits the relative social order necessary to attain sustained economic growth? In answer to the three research questions, my central thesis advances a two-pronged argument. First, I contend that the pivotal defining feature of China’s property rights regime is its institutional ambiguity. Second, I build a preliminary pre-theoretical model called “Negotiated Ambiguity” to argue that ambiguity is also a useful concept to explicate the processes of evolutionary changes. Essentially, if we take ambiguity seriously as an institutional feature, we can then understand the dynamic evolution of the country’s property rights regime as the product of the continuous processes of negotiations amongst political and economic actors over the legitimate meanings and distributional outcomes of the ambiguous property rights rules. Mediating these negotiations is the Chinese central state (government), whose active agency in the constitution of the ambiguous property rights regime is often downplayed by the extant literature on property rights where local states (governments) have decision-making authority. The proposed Negotiated Ambiguity framework of analysis presents an alternative understanding and explanation of China’s property rights institutions that, by taking institutional ambiguity seriously, sets us on new path of discovery about this important case.
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Thesis advisor: Busumtwi-sam, James
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