Following his study at Princeton, Xiaokai accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University. In 1988, he moved to Australia and took up a position as lecturer at Monash University. He quickly gained widespread international attention, publishing numerous English-language articles and books. He was made senior lecturer in 1989, reader in 1993, and was awarded a personal Chair in Economics in 2000. In 1993, he was elected to the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002 and 2003).
He collaborated with some of the world's leading economists, including Yew-Kwang Ng and Jeffrey Sachs, the latter of whom stated that "Yang is one of the world’s most penetrating and exacting economic theorists, and one of the most creative minds in the economics profession". In 2002, Nobel Prize Winner Professor James M. Buchanan said that: "In my view, the most important and exciting research in economics in the world is done at Monash, and it is done by Xiaokai Yang."
Xiaokai was a neoclassical economist. He is praised by his colleagues for having cleared up many unhelpful digressions in economic writing, and returning the discipline to the fundamental insights of Adam Smith. His work is founded on the assumption that all persons (potential traders) are equal in all relevant respects. He moved from this to develop an extensive explanatory apparatus. His work encompasses equilibria that involve more behavioral adjustments than those defined in orthodox neoclassical models of general equilibrium. According to Buchanan, this approach has major implications for a wide range of issues in economics, such as globalisation, outsourcing, as well as interoccupational and locational mobility.
Although he was a prolific author in economics, Xiaokai simultaneously wrote a large body of influential political essays in Chinese, including a best-selling book. He championed democracy, decentralisation of Chinese political power, and privatisation of the Chinese economy. When he died, Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), the most influential reformist magazine in China, published a long obituary, praising Xiaokai, and discussing the pervasive impact of his writings.
Professor Xiaokai Yang was diagnosed with lung cancer in September, 2001 and died on July 7, 2004 after a long battle with it, which doctors had predicted would kill him many years before he eventually died. He is survived by his wife and three children. His eventful life is described in his memoir, Captive Spirits: Prisoners of the Cultural Revolution.
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