I am a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor) in Economics at

Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. 

My research interests are in Political Economics, Development Economics,

and Economic History.


Email: weijia.li@monash.edu


Address: Department of Economics

Monash Business School

Building H, Room H4.48, 900 Dandenong Road

Caulfield East, VIC 3145, Australia


Working paper​s

Meritocracy and Dual Leadership: Historical Evidence and an Interpretation

Awarded the 2020 Asia-Pacific Prize in Economic History


This paper studies the origins of bureaucratic capacity, both empirically and theoretically. I apply text analysis to Chinese historical records; from these records, I construct a novel dataset tracing the evolution of political institutions for over 1,300 years. The dataset uncovers a key empirical regularity: a meritocratic bureaucracy arose only after emperors established a strong “separation of powers” among provincial officials, an institution also correlated with a much lower frequency of revolts. To explain these findings, I construct a model where the central government faces a loyalty-competence trade-off: a competent governor can weaponize his competence to challenge the central government. I show that the central government resolves the trade-off by appointing a political governor and an economic governor to co-rule a province. Case studies further show that the separation between economic and political powers is an important hallmark in many stable autocracies.


(with Gérard Roland and Yang Xie) Erosion of State Power, Corruption Control, and Fiscal Capacity

revised and resubmitted, Economic Journal

We model how corruption erodes state power, i.e., the state’s ability to keep its apparatus under control in crises. Under a general assumption about fat-tailed risk of crisis, we show that given strong fiscal capacity, the head of the state will control local corruption at such a level that its power is secured; given weaker capacity, the state will over-tolerate corruption to retain officials, risking control in crises; moreover, a state may be trapped with too weak fiscal capacity, rampant corruption, and the state losing control in any real crisis, while having little incentive to invest in fiscal capacity. By developing historical narratives, we show that these theoretical results are consistent with experience from the Roman Empire, New Kingdom of Egypt, Ming China and many other powerful states in history. 


(with Gérard Roland and Yang Xie) Crony capitalism, the party-state, and the political boundaries of corruption

revision and resubmission requested, Journal of Comparative Economics​​

China’s anti-corruption campaign since 2012 has raised questions about the role of corruption in China’s political economy. To analyze this issue systemati- cally, we build a model that unifies crony capitalism, the hierarchy of the Chinese party-state system, and the decision-making process inside the Party Center. We show that inefficient economic institutions create local corruption that improves productivity, while generating rents that flow along the party-state hierarchy up to the provincial level, threatening the Center’s control in potential crises. Given a general fat-tailed risk of crisis, we show that the Center will choose its tolerance of local corruption in priority to maximize crisis control, at the expense of the economy. Power structure and corruption within the Party Center and the recip- rocal accountability between the central and provincial leaders are also modeled and analyzed. Our analysis explains recent developments in the Chinese economy and politics.


Rotation, Performance Rewards, and Property Rights


Economic growth needs a strong and well-functioning government. But a government too strong can dominate private firms, leading to a holdup problem that is especially severe in autocracies. This paper studies how to constrain officials in autocracies through personnel rules, with a special focus on rotation and performance evaluation. Through a game theoretic model, I show that rotation or performance evaluation alone actually makes holdup problems even worse. But it is exactly their combination that covers each other's weakness and solves holdup problems together. Frequently rotated and carefully evaluated, officials also develop few entrenched interests in existing firms. This helps avoid crony capitalism and encourages Schumpeterian "creative destruction", solving another key problem with government-assisted development. Thus, rotation and performance rewards resolve the acute tradeoff between commitment and flexibility, a feature rarely satisfied by other commitment devices. Firm-level panel data from China are consistent with the key predictions of the model. 



Aristocracy, Meritocracy, and Property Rights (draft available upon request)

Why some regimes maintain a persistent meritocracy, while others are captured by aristocrats? I argue that in an environment with weak property rights, a meritocratic government and a thriving private economy reinforce each other. Enriched commoners can supply a large number of candidates to the government that prevents patrimonialization, while meritocracy promotes the private economy through de facto property rights. By contrast, an aristocratic government can dominate the private economy, which in turn cannot supply enough candidates to break hereditary politics. The theory matches important historical episodes such as the great ``Tang-Song Transition'' in China. I also show how legal property rights sufficiently strong can eliminate multiple equilibria, and that stronger property rights cause a more dynastic government. When commoner's property is well protected by law, commoner's incentive to engage in political competition is reduced. This allows ``political dynasties'' to capture the government. The extended model is employed to illustrate the difference between meritocracies in Imperial China and the Ottoman Empire. It also implies a causal relationship between comparative law and state building.





Work in progress

(with Gerard Roland and Yang XieRevolutionary Capital and the Dynamics of Revolutions and Protests


(with Elliot Foote) Targeted Media, Voter Suppression, and the Rise of Populism


(with Klaus Ackerman, Simon Angus, Nathan Lane, and Paul Raschky)  Mapping the Digital State


(with Nathan Lane) Economic Origins of Digital Dictatorship and Democracy 

(with Shaoda Wang and Zenan Wang) Bureaucrats and State Effectiveness: Evidence from the Bereavement Leave Rules in Historical China

Comparative Economics and Party-Government Relationships