Political Office and Household Wealth: Rural China in the Deng Era

Evidence from sample surveys and local field studies have long supported opposed arguments about the impact of market reform on the value of political office in the rural economy. This article reviews the evidence, describes a gradual convergence in findings, and identifies unresolved questions about qualitatively different local paths of development. Examining previously unexploited data from a nationally representative 1996 survey, a resolution of the remaining issues becomes evident. The value of political office initially is very modest, as the first private entrepreneurs reaped large incomes. However, subsequent economic development led to rapid increases in the earning power of cadres and their kin, and by the end of the Deng era the returns to political office were roughly equal to those of private entrepreneurs. The political advantages were not limited to regions that industrialized rapidly under collective ownership: they were large even in regions where the private economy was most extensive. However, despite evidence of large and enduring political advantages, those who reaped wealth from political position were only a small fraction of the newly rich, the vast majority of whom achieved wealth without current or past office-holding or kinship ties to cadres.