David Y. Yang is an Economics professor who studies change and stability in authoritarian regimes with a specific focus on China.
FM: To start off, you got your Bachelor’s at UC Berkeley and your Ph.D. at Stanford. Now, of course, you work at Harvard. East or West Coast?
DYY: West Coast at heart, but trying my best to get used to East Coast.
FM: You study political economy, which examines the relationship between political and economic systems, specifically drawing from Chinese history and contemporary politics. What first drew you to the field?
DYY: A big part of this is my own personal experience. I grew up in China.
I did not realize the censorship, the propaganda.
FM: Your research centers specifically on authoritarian regimes in China. What do you think people often get wrong in the discourse surrounding U.S.-China relations?
DYY: I think the one big misperception on the public media people seem to have that seems to generate a lot of traction in D.C. is that there’s a coherent, long-run strategy of the Chinese government to overtake the U.S., to change the global order and so on. Certainly there’s incentive to do so, but I think the foreign policy made in China is much less coherent, much less far far-sightedly planned than people have realized. It’s easy to rationalize and see a very strong and scary enemy perspective, but once you know China’s politics — and for that matter the U.S. as well — I think very few countries are making an extremely strategic long game in a way that the media tends to portray it.
FM: Some have argued that China’s large population and diverse cultural and economic background make it difficult for a Western-style democratic system to take root, and that criticizing China for its undemocratic government is to hold the country to Western standards. What do you think about these claims?
DYY: There are people in China who eagerly want and fight for democracy. There are people in the U.S. who take on actions that go very much against democracy. That happens all around the world, and is probably increasing still today.
I think economists like to think that there’s nothing unique and weird about the context. Everyone’s subject to some basic economic rules and principles, and they’re interested in potentially different consequences that the Chinese population might be facing, but it’s not that people fundamentally have different preferences, it’s their culture.
FM: What was the last book you read purely for fun?
DYY: I read a lot of cookbooks for fun. I wanted to write a cookbook of my own.
If you’re asking what’s the most recent book I read for fun, it’s a book called “The Birth of Intimacy, Privacy, and Domestic Life” in early modern Paris. It’s a book that looks at death records in Paris and tries to piece together how people lived 500 years ago, and how the internal domestic space evolves as the urban landscape changes.
FM: Now I’m curious about the cookbook. So what do you like to cook, or do you just like to read cookbooks?
DYY: I also like to cook. I did have a chef license when I was young, but it probably has expired at this point. I love to cook a lot.
FM: So what do you like to cook?
DYY: I like to cook all kinds of food. Chinese food, I think probably more fusion these days than just one type of cuisine. Part of my dream cookbook to write is that there’s surprisingly commonality across cuisines that one might never have realized. For example, every single food culture has a way of wrapping proteins with basically flatbread in different forms. Tacos, flatbreads, pizza, and they all come in the same form.
We learn a lot about history and cultural change through the way the recipes have evolved.
FM: You might have just answered this question, but if you weren’t a professor of political economy, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
DYY: I did want to be a chef, that’s one of my dreams. I also really wanted to, when I was younger, go on to be an architect. Then I realized that’s a major career that requires some really demanding hard skills, and I took the easier route.
FM: Is there a historical time period or regime that you find most salient in your research?
DYY: Well so I focus on China a lot, China post-1949. That’s definitely the period I’m personally excited and interested in researching. I do find the period between 1920 and 1930 — the transition of political regimes, going from the republican era to the Communist era in China — incredibly interesting. That ties together the rise of Hong Kong and the rise of this massive Shanghai during the time period, and eventually the rise of Taiwan in that time period.
FM: China has notoriously strong media censorship. Has it been difficult for you to conduct research and obtain data for your studies on the effects of Chinese policies?
DYY: Yes and no. It is a place where certain information, especially information or data that might be explicitly against the regime’s intention, might be harder to come by. It may be hard to do fieldwork, increasingly so these days, because the government just tends to not like people coming to do surveys.
On the other hand, we are talking about a state that’s incredibly strong in terms of state capacity. So the amount of data that the Chinese government collects and compiles is quite enormous, even compared to some of the traditional Western democratic regimes. For example, the procurement database the Chinese government maintains is oftentimes more comprehensive by magnitude than many other countries in the developed world. Many of the procurement contracts may reveal something that the government is not very proud of, but it’s part of reflecting a state bureaucracy system where a lot of records are being kept in there well.
FM: Is it hard for you to travel to China because of your work?
FM: Your recent paper, AI-tocracy if I’m saying that right, discusses the mutually reinforcing relationship between AI and autocratic regimes, and you’ve written about the threat of AI extensively. What did you find in this study, and what are the implications of those findings?
DYY: The key premise of that study is that for about half a century, political economists really had thought that there’s no way autocracy or non-democratic regimes can be at the frontier of innovation. And that gave us a lot of comfort because the mature democracy’s at the frontier. That’s going to make mature democracies a desirable institution and push the world’s path forward. There are cases, historically, not always, that make a challenge, and the point of this paper is to say that you might expect AI to be an important example where a status quo might be challenged, that AI is a technology that may benefit the regime rather than disturb the regime. It’s technology that’s about prediction, and prediction is really useful for civilians.
And because AI uses a lot of data, and a civilian’s regime collects all the data and is potentially willing to provide that data to the firm, the firm can take that data and push their innovation frontier forward. So you can get this mutually beneficial relationship where a technology benefits the regime, and so the regime wants to develop it. And when the regime develops it, the regime can also offer useful input so that the technology gets stimulated forward a lot compared to their counterparts.
FM: So how do you think AI will affect the political economy of democratic nations like the U.S.?
DYY: There hasn’t been any super solid evidence that there is a meaningful decline in institutional quality because of AI, in part because we’re still very early in terms of where AI’s been commercialized or been used.
To the best of our knowledge, we don’t have any solid evidence about how TikTok is affecting politics, which everyone in this generation would know how important that is to your formation of ideas.
FM: So what is your stance on the use of AI in the classroom, specifically regarding chatbots like ChatGPT?
DYY: I think we should view them as calculators. This is a tool that there’s no point resisting. The best way to incorporate them is to incorporate them into education and teach everyone how best to use them so that you can maximize your productivity, which means that it probably doesn’t make sense for everyone to write short summaries that are going to be replaced in our lifetime by ChatGPT. But our human talent is going to come in the form of who’s going to ask the best questions to extract from the chatbots. And those are skills that can be trained, in the same way that 20 years ago we got trained on how to best use calculators to do math problems.
FM: Outside of your work and research, how do you spend your time? I know you said cooking — is there anything else you do?
DYY: I run a lot.
FM: Where do you like to run here? I also like to run.
DYY: If I’m near campus, around the river. We recently moved to the suburbs, where we’re still discovering new running routes. None of them are as nice as the river. So that’s one nice thing about Boston, running around the river.
FM: What is something you’ve changed your mind about recently?
DYY: Well, I’ve changed quite a bit regarding how optimistic I see China’s economy. Not that I was super optimistic six months ago, but cautiously optimistic, and I’ve become a lot more pessimistic with the most recent developments in the country and so on.
FM: Then this might also answer that, but what most worries you about the future? Would it be China’s economy or something else — or just in general?
DYY: I think the biggest thing that worries me is that the world really cannot afford another major mistake, a desperate ruler who wants to claim power. Having a war on Ukraine was a major miscalculation that Putin is already causing now, and when the Chinese leader gets desperate and potentially makes past mistakes, it will have an incredibly high domestic cost for China. But given the size of the Chinese economy and so on, it will affect all of us. I simply don’t think that we can even want to anticipate if a major past mistake happens in China what will be the consequences.
What gets [me] worried is that we know in principle the more concentration of power there is, the more likely you will make mistakes because you get less feedback. And the Chinese government or the Communist Party in China over the last 30, 40 years one of the defining features is very pragmatic ideologies on one side. At the end of the day it’s a pretty pragmatic party that we need to correct mistakes and get on the right track with economic development when it needs to. There’s a lot of signs that that pragmatism of the party is winding down, which means the tendency for making mistakes is increasing, which certainly it’s pessimistic to watch when one cares about China, but also incredibly worrisome if we care about the world.
FM: On the flip side, what gives you hope for the future?
DYY: One part is that every 20 years, if you look at newspapers, there are discussions about this is the end, the world is gonna implode, because we invented this, invented that, we did this, and this is a major disaster. The human race has basically survived each of the major crises incredibly well, maybe always on the fence, and you always think the ship is sinking but it didn’t. So there’s always a chance that we can come back and resolve that issue this time around. There’s nothing fundamentally different in this particular case.
— Associate Magazine Editor Kyle L. Mandell can be reached at email@example.com.