Lynette Ong, Ph.D.

University of Toronto

Country: Canada (Ontario)

About Me:

I am Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, with joint appointment at the Asian Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs. I was An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies in 2008-09.I am an expert in the politics and political economy of China. I also have expertise in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. My research interests are authoritarian politics, contentious politics and the political economy of development. My journal publications have appeared in Perspectives on Politics, Comparative Politics, International Political Science Review, Political Studies, China Quarterly, China Journal, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of Contemporary China, among others. My recent writings are on the subject of state control and citizen activism in China, specifically the government’s effort to maintain social stability. My book, Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China was published by Cornell University Press in 2012. It is the first book in the field to highlight the perils of mounting local government debt and non-sustainability of the “China model”. Written in the late 2000s, the book underscores many political-economic issues currently facing China, such as rising debt levels, and over-reliance on banking resources to finance local infrastructure spending. 

Research Interests

Asian Politics


Human Rights

Non-Democratic Regimes

Political Violence

Post-Communist Politics

Democratization And Authoritarianism

Social Movements

Political Participation

Protest Politics

State Capacity

Countries of Interest





Journal Articles:

(2018) “‘Thugs-for-Hire’: Subcontracting of State Coercion and State Capacity in China, Perspectives on Politics

Using violence or threat of violence, “thugs-for-hire”(TFH) is a form of privatized coercion that helps states subjugate a recalcitrant population. I lay out three scope conditions under which TFH is the preferred strategy: when state actions are illegal or policies are unpopular; when evasion of state responsibility is highly desirable; and when states are weak in their capacity or are less strong than their societies. Weak states relative to strong ones are more likely to deploy TFH, mostly for the purpose of bolstering their coercive capacity; strong states use TFH for evasion of responsibility. Yet the state-TFH relationship is functional only if the state is able to maintain the upper hand over the violent agents. Focusing on China, a seemingly paradoxical case due to its traditional perception of being a strong state, I examine how local states frequently deploy TFH to evict homeowners, enforce the one-child policy, collect exorbitant exactions, and deal with petitioners and protestors. However, the increasing prevalence of “local mafia states” suggests that some of the thuggish groups have grown to usurp local governments’ autonomy. This points to the cost of relying upon TFH as a repressive strategy.

(2018) What Drives People to Protest in an Authoritarian Country? Resources and Rewards vs Risks of Protests in Urban and Rural China, Political Studies

What drives people to protest in an authoritarian country? Drawing from a rich set of individual level data from the China General Social Survey 2010, we address the question of protest participation by focusing on the factors of resources, and rewards vs risks, that might be unique to protestors in an authoritarian state. We find strong evidence for education, typically conceived as a key enabling resource in protests, to be negatively associated with likelihood of participation. There are, however, significant differences between political behavior in urban and rural samples. We find some, though rather weak, evidence to suggest that as urban residents become wealthier over time, they will increasingly turn to protests as a form of political participation, demanding greater accountability of government and corporate actions.

(2012) Between Developmental and Clientelist States Local State-Business Relationships in China, Comparative Politics

The role of the state, particularly the local states, has received enormous attention in explaining the spectacular rural industrialization in China, a process that jumpstarted the country’s economic take-off in the early 1980s and pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty during the first fifteen years of economic reform.4 Conventional wisdom among political scientists holds that local governments in China have played an instrumental role in developing collectively owned enterprises and spearheading rural industrialization. Local states have been described as corporatist,5 entrepreneurial,6 or developmental,7 denoting the interventionist and instrumental roles they have played in rural industrialization. The central government has provided policy incentives to encourage industrial promotion by local governments, even though it is not directly involved in local industrialization. Since the implementation of fiscal decentralization polices in the 1980s, local governments have been given the prerogative to impose and collect taxes as well as to retain a certain portion of tax revenues. Local governments are also given the financing responsibilities of public goods and service provision. Given the fiscal incentive and responsibility, developing tax-contributing industries becomes a critical objective of local governments.8 Hence, it is appropriate to restrict the current study of the role of the state to that of local states. I question the validity of the conventional wisdom in light of recent empirical developments. The literature on local states in China was written in the 1980s and early 1990s, when collectively owned township and village enterprises (TVEs) were expanding rapidly; since then, the TVE sector has been drastically transformed. Beginning in the mid–1990s, local governments either privatized these collective enterprises or shut down the extremely unprofitable ones. There is ample evidence pointing to pervasive stripping of collectively owned assets during the privatization process. Various studies on privatization have pointed to massive undervaluation of collectively owned assets by local governments, and to transaction prices set significantly below the collective 191 enterprises’ net worth. Consequently, a majority of the collectively owned assets were simply sold to private individuals at heavily discounted prices. This contradicts the very notion of developmental states. If the local governments were indeed acting in the interests of the communities, as developmental states do, why did they allow such stripping of collective assets?

(2012) Fiscal federalism and soft budget constraints: The case of China, International Political Science Review

China has been held up as a modern-day exemplar of ‘market-preserving federalism.’ This article challenges this popular belief by showing that its local governments face soft budget constraints. Fiscal indiscipline among subnational governments, which risks national indebtedness and macroeconomic instability, can pose serious dangers to federations. A large body of literature which proposes solutions to fiscal indiscipline through electoral incentives and political party structure cannot be applied to China. The Chinese Communist Party’s cadre-evaluation and dual accountability systems make it an imperative for local officials to augment fiscal revenue and allow them to tap resources at local credit institutions. This has resulted in mounting local government debt, the lion’s share of which is unrepaid loans owed to local credit institutions. To harden budget constraints, political institutions need to be reconfigured to allow the central government more effectively to hold local authorities accountable for resources deployed in achieving their job-performance targets.