Zeren Li

I am a PhD Candidate of Political Science at Duke University. My research focuses on business-state relations, bureaucracy, good governance, and authoritarian politics with a regional interest in China. Before joining Duke, I obtained an MPhil in Social Sciences from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and a LLB in Political Science from Fudan University.

My dissertation, Institutionalized Rent-Seeking: The Political-Business Revolving Door in China, proposes a theoretical framework for understanding the emergence of revolving-door officials in authoritarian regimes and tests the theory through rigorous inquiry into firms in China. Scholars contend that firms enter the political marketplace primarily through bribery or by entrepreneurs running for public office in a weak institutional context. My dissertation challenges this conventional understanding by arguing that revolving-door channels become a dominant means of rent-seeking when the within-government career opportunities are rare for public officials and the private sector is profitable. 

As part of my dissertation, my paper, “Subsidies for Sale: Postgovernment Career Concern and Public Resource Allocation in China”, analyzes how government officials distort the allocation of public resources for their future career concerns in the private sector. I document a unique quid pro quo exchange through the political-business revolving door in China using an original dataset that matches over 100,000 city-level government subsidy programs with all revolving-door officials who hold positions in Chinese publicly listed firms. I find that public officials provide sizable favorable treatment to their future employers when they are in public office. In return, firms offer these officials more compensation than other revolving-door officials.

Methodologically, I am interested in the "Big Data" analysis of state-business relations. For my dissertation and other research projects, I develop automated methods for collecting and matching extensive administrative data and create two original databases: the Chinese Revolving-Door Officials Database and the Chinese Public-Private Partnership Database. My research has been funded by institutions including National Science Foundation, Google Cloud Platform, the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, and other research grants.

Research and Teaching Interests

Political Economy, Business-State Relations, Bureaucracy, Good overnance, and Authoritarian Politics