Saul Wilson

I'm an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, where I hold a joint appointment with the Centre for China Studies.

My research focuses on the politics of urban development and land property rights during China's rapid urbanization.  By studying the relationship between local governments, developers, landholders, and government officials, I investigate the Chinese party-state's sprawling project to establish itself as the sole landlord of the country’s rapidly expanding cities.  I argue that this "Landlord State" project, undergirded by a hope of extracting land rents to finance the government, resulted in a complex effort to refashion state-society relations.  On the one hand, the state sought to expropriate landholders by taking their land at heavily suppressed prices; on the other hand, the state sought to ensure that real estate developers bought land only from the government, paid heartily for that land, and complied with urban planning restrictions.  I show that the Chinese state proved remarkably successful at building up the state’s authority over businesses (real estate developers) and significantly less effective against common citizens (peasants and small scale urban property owners), a finding that sheds new light on state-society relations in China.  You can read more about this project here.

My broader interest in Chinese municipal politics has also prompted a series of projects on the role of leadership.  I have sought to evaluate the effect local leaders have on their jurisdictions through the study of municipal development policies, government land sales, budgeting, and--last but not least--personnel assignments.  Working with Chen Hao, Cheng Cheng, Wang Yuhua, and Xu Changxin, I have created a dataset of all officials who have served in leadership positions in Shanxi 山西 province since the founding of the Communist Party in 1921.  So far, we have a dataset of over 60,000 distinct officials, which we have made available here.  You can find more details about the dataset in this paper.

Along with Julia Harten, Hou Li, Andrew Stokols, and Nie Xuanyi, I help organize the MIT-Ashoka-UBC-University at Buffalo (SUNY)-Harvard Urban China Zoom Speaker Series.  Before COVID, we used to meet in person in Boston.  Now we meet on Zoom, with speakers from around the world.  You can join our mailing list here.