Bruce Dickson, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University

Interviewer: Viola Rothschild

How did you first become interested in Chinese politics?

BD: Once upon a time when I was in high school, China was largely closed during the Maoist era. All we really knew was Mao’s writings and other features that seemed intriguing. Despite the big differences between China and the west, the similarities between Mao’s notion of what a good society would look like based on cooperation, not competition, seemed inspiring. Of course, turns out it was completely bogus but nevertheless, it was inspiring, and from there I really got drawn into it. And so when I got to college, I realized I wanted to focus on Chinese politics. My advisor said that if you know what you want to do in grad school, don’t do it as an undergrad. Which meant I only took one course as an undergrad that was specifically on China. The problem was that when you get to grad school, they assume you know all that stuff already, so I had a lot of catching up to do. But by then I was already committed, and it just went forward from there.

And how did you hone in on your dissertation topic, or even later in your career, narrow down what you were interested in and pick your projects?

BD: When I was in grad school, I was looking at the question of the potential of democratization in China. I was going to be doing my fieldwork soon after 1989 when the prospects of going into China and doing research on political change seemed not very promising. And so originally I was going to a comparison with Taiwan which had the Kuomintang which was a Leninist party that had evolved towards democracy and so I was asking if a similar transition would be possible in China. Because it wasn’t feasible to do fieldwork in China, I did all my fieldwork in Taiwan. Originally Taiwan was going to be more of a shadow case in the comparison, but it ended up being about a 50-50 comparison. But there were few job prospects for Taiwan specialists, so I didn’t really want to package myself as that. Following from that, basically everything I’ve done has been—what keeps the Party in power? Why has there not been regime change? What does the Party do to maintain its control? In each of the books I’ve done, that has been the underlying theme.

In your view, what do you see as some future promising areas of research in the field?

BD: One of the biggest gaps we’ve got now as the focus has shifted towards localities is in the study of elite politics. When I was an undergrad all we had was elite-level material because that was at least visible. We couldn’t go to China to do fieldwork, but we had some documents available. Scholars worked with people who emigrated to Hong Kong for interviews. As much as we know how important elite politics are, there are really few people who study elite politics now because it is so difficult to get access to decision-makers. At this point we assume there are factions, but we don’t concretely know what factions exist and what divides them. That’s one area I’ve always been interested in but the literature on that topic is largely absent, and what does exist is mostly done by journalists.

You mentioned that when you were doing your dissertation fieldwork, China was very closed off and you had to go to Taiwan. We’re not facing quite as extreme of a situation, but the prospects seem pretty bleak. What advice do you have for doing fieldwork in China in this climate?

BD: Surveys have been really hard, especially getting representative, nationwide samples. The online, more opportunistic ones have major validity issues. So that seems to be a closed avenue right now unless you can construct a more narrowly defined survey experiment of some kind. I often see a lot of papers using survey experiments, but not many that get published. There are even issues with how credible public opinion surveys are. Local interviewing has never been that easy, there was never some sort of golden era, then Xi comes into power and everything is terrible. It was never easy if you talk to people that were trying to do interviews in the 1990s and 2000s. There has always been reluctance to talk to foreign scholars. But interviews are still accessible than survey research.

What about advice more generally for those of us just starting our academic careers in this field?

BD: Probably the best advice is just to make sure you pick a topic that you are not going to get tired of. Because you’re going to be living with it for 4, 5, 6 years, and you have to be innately interested in it. When I was in grad school, advisors sometimes imposed topics on people that had a hard time finding something that interested them, and they almost never finished because they weren’t committed to it—it wasn’t their idea. So it has to be something that you are intrinsically interested in but that also has enough theoretical ambition behind it that other people will see merit to it.