Hou Yue, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

Interviewer: Peng Peng

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

HY: In my family my grandparents, parents and I used to sit together and watch the 7 pm CCTV news (新闻联播) while having dinner. This has been my family ritual since I was very little. We talk about political events while watching news and having dinner. I don’t remember the exact content of our conversations. But the conversations slowly made me interested in political and social issues. Before 7pm, there were local news. We also watched and discussed them. That was my early exposure to politics and current events. I went to the United States when I was eighteen years old and started taking courses in political science. I guess this is how I got into Chinese politics.

What interesting research do you see coming up in Chinese politics?

HY: this conference is a really good opportunity to be up to date because we get to read memos written by over 50 scholars about their own work. I think US-China trade relations is an interesting, important and timely topic. Many works came out of economics. For instance, David Autor (and coauthors) ’s “the China shock” provides a comprehensive analysis of how China’s emergence in world trade affects employment in the US. Xiaojun Li, Weiyi Shi and Boliang Zhu have done fascinating works on the public opinion side of the issue. I am also interested in using public records to form new questions. Rory Truex and I are looking at court cases to understand biases in the judicial system. We focus on drug cases in Yunnan and study whether minority defendants are treated differently from Han defendants who have committed similar crimes. Jian Xu from Emory University has a co-authored paper on foreign firms filing court cases against domestic companies using the same data source. The finding is counterintuitive in the sense that foreign firms are not at a disadvantaged position against domestic ones when facing each other in courts. I think we can ask many interesting questions using these public data. The third topic I find interesting is the emergence and consequences of the development of tech companies in China, such as Tencent and Alibaba. Scholars are gaining more access to these companies and asking important questions. For example, Lizhi Liu from Georgetown University has a fascinating project where she studies the welfare consequences of Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce villages.

If I get it right, you are saying two important things here: one is that we should pay attention to what is going on in the world and also be thinking about data availability.

HY: Let me clarify. I believe our research questions shouldn’t be driven by what is hot,   or what is in the news. We should care about fundamental and theoretically important questions. At the same time, given data availability we can afford to study more recent events and contribute to policy discussions.

So that brings us to the question, how do you think the China field can contribute to the broader literature on political science?

HY: As a China scholar, I always face the question of how to frame our China papers. As China becomes more and more influential internationally, there is less need for us to justify using China as the single case. In terms of theory building, we are naturally contributing to the literature on authoritarian politics, i.e. how politics work in non-democracies. We are also contributing to the literature of economic growth. Three development economists won the Nobel economic Prize this year, but they didn’t really touch upon on how China grew. If you ask what the biggest success growth story is in the past few decades, it is definitely China’s economic growth since 1978. We are still trying to figure out why and if the China model (or the China experience) is so different from the neo-liberal model and what lessons we can learn from China’s growth. And political scientists have a lot to contribute to this literature.

Your new book touches upon this issue.

HY: Yes, my new book the Private Sector in Public Office studies how China’s private sector grows in the absence of secure rule of law and property rights protection. I show that private entrepreneurs actively seek political office to protect their property rights, creating a system of “selective property rights” in China.

I also recommend a book Revolutionary Legacy, Power Structure, and Grassroots Capitalism Under the Red Flag in China written by Qi Zhang from Fudan University and Mingxing Liu from Peking University. They ask the same question of how the private sector managed to grow in the absence of property rights and provide a slightly different angle.

You talked about using publicly available data to formulate research questions. But at the same time, it seems that obtaining data is getting restricted. Do you have any advice for collecting data, doing interviews, and doing fieldwork in China?

HY: I do share the concern. In difficult times, we need to get more creative about collecting data. Going back to my earlier answers, finding publicly available online data could be one alternative. The other direction is going historical. For example, Yuhua Wang from Harvard and Dan Mattingly from Yale are doing exciting historical work on state capacity and civil-military relations. That said, we shouldn’t abandon doing fieldwork in China just because it is getting more difficult. We should take some risks but also be cautious and smart when we are in the field. There is no easy solution.

Did you do interviews when you were a graduate student?

HY: Yes, I interviewed private entrepreneurs, government officials and scholars based in China. I did get some point-blank answers or insincere conversations. You just have to move on. In my case, many private entrepreneurs wanted to have deep conversations and tell you their life stories. I enjoyed those conversations a lot. If I were to ask tax collectors how they over-extracted, I probably couldn’t get good answers.

For fieldwork, do you have plans ahead of time or you are spontaneous about it?

HY: It went from unstructured and semi-structured to structured. I started from survey data of private entrepreneurs and then went back during winter and summer breaks to conduct interviews. After these initial interviews, I went back to look at survey data again and try to make sense of both quantitative and qualitative evidence. I prefer short periods of condense interviews. After two or three months, I feel that the marginal benefits of doing one more interview decrease drastically because I was starting to get similar answers. That’s when I decided it was time to go back to my office and regroup.

Do you stay in one place or you travel to different places?

HY: For my dissertation/book project, I conducted interviews in different provinces and cities: Zhejiang, Hunan, Guizhou, Beijing and Shanghai. I chose localities to reflect different levels of private sector development and types of business-state relations. The sample was not random because private entrepreneurs who are local people’s congress delegates are not easy to find and interview. Same with government officials. I relied on friends and family to introduce me to my subjects. It was a snowballing sample.

How do you keep in touch with what is going on in China?

HY: it is important to stay into touch on what is going on in China politically, socially and culturally. I regularly check Chinese social media to see what my friends and acquaintances in China talk about. When there are repeated posts about the same topic on the Wechat circle, you know that they are things relevant to people’s daily lives and many of these events are not usually covered by Western media. Also, I try to visit different areas in China beyond Beijing, Shanghai and my hometown Changsha. Even when I don’t have a concrete research question, I sometimes just go to a new place, be a tourist, and chat with the locals. I usually learn a lot from taxi drivers. This summer I was in Kashgar and took several taxi rides. Most of the drivers are young Uyghur men. When my driver did not know an exact address, he would voice message a WeChat group full of taxi drivers, and other WeChat group member would immediately respond and offer help, all in Uyghur language. I definitely would not have imagined this kind of chat group could exist. I also remember my conversations with Shanghai taxi drivers about how 打黑 campaign worked on the ground in a city where crime rate is quite low (e.g., how the police identify targets). These conversations might or might not work their way into a paper, but they definitely helped me understand what’s going on in China.