Ling Chen, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Interviewer: Griffin Riddler

How did you first become interested in Chinese politics?

LC: As a senior in undergrad at Peking University, I took classes with Chinese professors who trained in the US for their PhDs and later returned to China. I participated in their graduate classes as an undergrad. Then, as I got older and went into grad school here, I became more interested in political economy generally and Chinese political economy specifically.

What sort of research are you and other scholars doing in promising areas of study in Chinese politics?

LC: If this is actually advice for other graduate students, then I would say first of all that graduate students should pursue what they have the most passion for. You could get a lot of cool data, do a lot of research, get a lot of publications, but you can be successful in publications without becoming a great scholar. To be a great scholar, you have to ask yourself what you have the most passion for, because when you have passion for it, you will try to find every possible way to search the data you need, as you are driven by curiosity and passion. And that, whenever there are problems in your research, you will try to find every possible way to address it and to convince people, and that’s the best way to go. There is too much research on China which doesn’t do this. To me, the political economy, the relationship between political and economic elites, is very relevant, and we have, not perfect, but relatively good data there. Again though, you need to ask yourself if you are just trying to find somewhere with good data to study, and to run regressions, or do you actually have passion for it?

Yeah, that is what everyone I’ve interviewed so far has said.

LC: Oh really? Interesting!

Related to that, and people have been touching on it at the conference so far, but how do you think the study of Chinese politics as a subfield or area studies field should and currently does contribute to the broader study of comparative politics and international relations, the “bigger” pillars of political science?

LC: I think that, in my field, it basically challenges the linear model, where economic liberalism and development must lead to political liberalization and reform. It can provide re-conceptualization of the state, business, and the larger society, and their interactions.

Do you think the field of Chinese politics does a good job of relating to larger concepts in the disciplines of comparative politics and international relations?

LC: It used to be that they didn’t really talk to each other. I think it is better now than it used to be, two or three decades ago. However, I think that the movement is a little too rapid, almost like the Great Leap Forward, and we’re almost saying that China can be studied as American politics. That is, a little bit, too much. I think we should use some medium speed in terms of integrating comparative politics and the Chinese politics field.

Progress is good, but too much progress can be…

LC: It’s not about “progress.” It’s about, if, at the APSA conference we often see, we study this, this, and this question, and we directly take this question without asking about those assumptions embedded in the concept. Does the research question and your major independent and dependent variables make sense in the Chinese context? What I think integration should be is to take abstract concepts and theories from the Chinese case and see if they apply more broadly in a comparative context. It’s less useful when you directly say, “I have this concept derived from Western developed democracies and I’m applying it directly into the Chinese case.”

As a student interested in political economy, I sometimes get frustrated because a lot of the concepts from political economy come from Western advanced democracies and I feel that comparative political economy is based on the American and European experiences.

LC: And they can, they can. We have to say why it makes sense here and does not make sense there. We have to be more selective in applying these concepts.

You can’t uncritically import these concepts into the Chinese context.

LC: Yes, that’s right.

The last set of questions is about the changing conditions for research in China, and any advice you could give to grad students interested in studying Chinese politics in a time when it’s increasingly difficult for foreign scholars to do field work.

LC: Yeah, I’m stuck with that too. Do interviews whenever possible to discover interesting stories, make connections, and be careful. You do not have to start out getting the most sensitive data or go to the most sensitive actors, but you can first chat with scholars who conduct that kind of research before going to the primary sources. That might be a good way to go. Find co-authors for the topic inside China, that’s another way of course. Some data they might not let you use, but if your co-author is inside China, you can ask them to run whatever analysis you need.

If you were onboarding a new class of Ph.D. students in the first week in their first year, what piece of advice would you give to them as the single most important thing to remember?

LC: I think that they should be looking for their dissertation topic, start thinking about that and take it seriously. Treat it like a marriage: once you get married, it is possible to divorce, but it is very hard. So, make sure you choose the right topic, because you will have to be stuck with it for the next ten to fifteen years, since you will probably want to publish a book out of it.