Publication Type

Conference Paper

Publication Date



As China decentralized in the 1980s, many provinces received the latitude to implement their own strategies and approaches to economic development. Not surprisingly, such strategies varied regionally as provinces with different levels of wealth and resources implemented different approaches to achieving economic development. Yet, some of these examples are quite puzzling, with provinces that share many similarities implementing markedly different strategies. Moreover, some provinces not only implemented different approaches to economic development, but adopted entirely different goals – interpreting the very definition of economic development differently. To explain these differences, China scholars have focused on different factors, including constraints and opportunities from the center, characteristics of the provinces themselves, and attributes of individual leaders (e.g., Li 1997, Huang 1996, Chung 2000, Zeng 1991). While these explanations are able to explain some of the more straightforward cases, puzzling exceptions remain. Moreover, how the provinces interact with lower levels administrative units remains under researched. Focusing on Guizhou and Yunnan, two provinces with similar geographies, institutions and natural resource endowments, this paper updates previous research in asking why provincial leaders adopted markedly disparate economic strategies. Using data from fieldwork and secondary sources, it focuses on the three political factors listed above that are purported to explain differences in provincial policy. I argue that while the center constrains and encourages certain actions and approaches in the provinces, the experiences and background of individual provincial leaders further affects the choice of strategies implemented there. While emphasizing the importance of characteristics of local leaders and their relationship with the center, the paper questions the assumptions on which research focusing on elite characteristics has so far been based, and suggests alternative approaches. In addition, since Li Zhanshu was appointed as Guizhou’s CCP provincial secretary in 2010, the overall direction for that province’s policy changed markedly. This allows us to examine the degree to which new leaders with different commitments and ideas can fight against the forces of path dependency and inertia to stake out different directions. The paper also explores the shifting relationships between provincial level governments and the lower level, highlighting different patterns for each case. The results have implications for our understanding not only of decentralization, central– provincial relations and the origins of the economic policies of Chinese President Hu Jintao, Guizhou’s previous leader.


Economic Policy | Political Science | Social Welfare

Research Areas

Political Science


American Political Science Association Annual Meeting

City or Country

Chicago, USA