Jen Pan, Assistant Professor of Communication, Stanford University

Interviewer: Zeren Li

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

JP: I first became interested in Chinese politics as an undergraduate student. I immigrated from China to the U. S. when I was seven, and I lived in Indiana, where there were few Chinese people and immigrants. From age seven until college, my whole orientation was about assimilating into U.S. society. But when I went to college, that pressure disappeared, and I started to learn more about the region: art, history, also Chinese politics. I wrote my undergraduate thesis about HIV/AIDS in China and after graduation, I worked for the Chinese Center for Disease Control, HIV/AIDS Division.  That was an opportunity to see how policymaking worked in China and also try to do something with positive impact. I learned a great deal, but I frequently saw politics—bureaucratic competition, center-local tensions, intra-provincial competition for resources—getting in the way of good intentions. I did not have the terminology to capture what I saw back then, but I wanted to better understand what was going on.  I thought I would get that understanding in the private sector. I worked for McKinsey & Company as a consultant for four years in the U. S and in China. I again saw politics shaping outcomes, but in the business world, politics is lumped into “risk” and there was no room to delve deeply into underlying political processes and dynamics.

I made the non-traditional jump from management consulting to Ph.D, and my initial goal was simply to see if I would understand something about the world and have confidence in that knowledge. Because of my previous experiences in China, that’s where my research went. 

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

JP: You should do what you’re most interested in. That goes for both the topic as well as the method. Academics want to contribute to knowledge and advance our understanding of the world. To be able to do that, you have to enjoy your work. For example, I am not very extroverted, and I find it painful to build the relationships required for some types of qualitative fieldwork in China. I have done it, and I will do it if I need to but I do not enjoy it, and I have to put in much more effort to get the same result, or likely less good result, than some of my colleagues who love this type of fieldwork and excel at it. I realize there are many feasibility constraints and as a graduate student, you may not yet know what you enjoy, but there are many paths to being successful as an academic and at some point, you will be able to make choices about what to pursue and how to pursue it. When that point comes, don’t forget to take into account your enjoyment . 

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

JP: First, almost all comparative politics work being done these days is region-specific: Latin American, Africa, the Middle East. Everyone is doing work on a particular country——mostly one, sometimes two, rarely three. So, every comparativist has to face this question, and it’s not specific to China. When I talk to my colleagues who are comparativists who study other areas of the world, they say they would love to be a political scientist studying China. The issue then is how do we translate empirical work done on China in a way that colleagues in other subfields find useful. For me, it helps to interact regularly with colleagues who study other parts of the world, to understand how they think about politics, what theories, questions, processes, dependent variables, and independent variables they are most interested in.

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

JP: I would say access and safety. It’s increasingly difficult to study China. Many avenues of research are closing. In order to get access to data, a researcher might have to take risks. In considering whether or not to take such risks, we have to consider not only our safety and the safety of human subjects but also the safety of research team members and research partners. For example, in experimental work, we’re often concerned about the human subjects, but frequently the research assistants who are implementing the treatment may be similarly or more exposed to personal risks. We need to consider the full and possibly longer-term implications of our research designs and to think about the ethics of our research beyond human subjects.