Iza Ding, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

Interviewer: Xiaoshu Gui

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

ID: I don’t remember what first made me interested in Chinese politics, but I do remember what made me interested in studying the part of Chinese politics that became my dissertation. I was meeting with an interview subject in a coffee shop in Shanghai, my interviewee didn’t find my dissertation question interesting, and asked why I didn’t study something that actually “mattered.” I thought about what mattered. On that day I was suffering from a miserable spell of respiratory illness, and like everybody else I blamed it on air pollution. So I decided to change my dissertation topic to environmental politics – I thought it was something that mattered.

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

ID: What is interesting and important is in the eye of the beholder – one person might think climate change is the most important topic of our age, another might find its importance completely subjective or overblown. Therefore, a graduate student should stick to a topic they like and not worry too much about what is supposedly coming next.

That said, there are a few topics that are quite likely shaping up to become the “next big things.” In domestic politics, “big data governance” raises big questions. How does it transform the state structure? How willing are ordinary people to trade privacy for health and security? How will artificial intelligence and machine learning affect governance? More broadly, what are the political consequences of technological advancement? What kind of social cleavages does it create? Will China stay characteristically adaptive in meeting these challenges?

In international relations, China’s global engagement such as the BRI is getting a great deal of attention. While it may be too early to assess the outcomes of an initiative that is by all accounts fragmented and is far from fully materialized, scholars have started to trace parts of the process as they unfold in real time. Equally interesting are the reactions to BRI within China: how do ordinary Chinese people understand China’s international role? How will China’s national self-image evolve? What will happen to things like the non-interference principle? Even if the non-interference principle hasn’t always been strictly followed; the fact of the matter is that Chinese citizens believe that China generally does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations – but will this belief change with China’s growing international profile?

How do you think Chinese politics can contribute to the general literature of comparative political science?

ID: Before answering this question we should think about first principles: first, what is “general”? Second, can knowledge ever be general?

On the question of what is “general,” it is hard to ignore the historical, sociological, and political forces shaping how a piece of knowledge becomes labeled as “general” in the first place. Why is Who Governs general, but not Soulstealers? I won’t unpack these forces here because they are largely beyond the control of individual researchers.

But the question of whether knowledge IS general is useful to think about. Are there absolute covering laws that govern all individual behavior, social interactions, and “institutional” behavior? If they do exist, should the main objective of social science be to uncover these covering laws? If there also exists knowledge that is “context-specific,” how should we evaluate its value vis-a-vis covering laws? On what grounds should we discount the value of context-specific knowledge? These are important questions even the natural sciences have not resolved. Consider String Theory’s flailing attempt to unify the subfields of quantum mechanics and general relativity in the discipline of physics.

Assuming there is such a thing as general knowledge in comparative politics which allows “the elimination of proper names,” there are four ways Chinese politics can contribute to it: 1) when Chinese politics proves general knowledge right; 2) when Chinese politics proves general knowledge wrong or badly incomplete; 3) when Chinese politics produces new knowledge that can be replicated elsewhere – becoming general knowledge; 4) when Chinese politics produces new knowledge that cannot be replicated elsewhere – remaining as specific knowledge. 3 seems to be the most desirable. 1 and 2 are important because China is often either excluded from “general knowledge” or implied in some general knowledge about certain kinds of political systems. 4 seems least relevant for general knowledge, but it takes us back to the question of value: these China-specific findings might be of less interest to the scholarly community at large – if a community that excludes the world’s most populous country can really be called “large” at all – but this does not mean they are of less enduring value.

Do you have any advice for collecting data, doing interviews, and doing fieldwork in China?

ID: First, expect challenges, lots and all kinds of them. These challenges may be your dependent and independent variables after all. Second, prepare for rainy days. Before fieldwork, make a list of potential challenges you might encounter, and write down how you would imagine adapting to each. With interviews, triangulate your sources, talk to as many people as possible; anticipate that most people will be too busy to talk, and expect most interviews to end up “useless.” But don’t read “preference falsification” into every conversation, because sometimes people really are too busy, really don’t see the world the way you do, or really just don’t know the answer to your question. Chinese academics are generally happy to work with foreign scholars, so it doesn’t hurt to get to know a few of them who might host you, help you, and advise you.

Besides the aforementioned problems, are there any other difficulties of studying Chinese politics for scholars based outside China?

ID: There may be two types of difficulties: intellectual and logistical. Intellectually, studying Chinese politics from outside of China might mean that one generates their research questions from the latest literature and internationally salient news items as opposed to other things happening on the ground or in the Chinese news that may be equally interesting and important. The physical “field” also offers a good opportunity to smell-test hypotheses generated outside of China. For example, do our “subjects” find our questions interesting or important and our theories convincing?

In terms of logistical difficulties, it really depends on one’s topic, methods, and luck. A scholar should thoroughly assess all the difficulties for them and their subjects before embarking on a research project. They should always prioritize the convenience of their research subjects over making things easier for themselves.