Interviewer: Viola Rothschild
How did you become interested in studying Chinese politics?
LLZ: I was initially interested in International Political Economy (IPE), but in year 3 of my doctoral study, I had a random conversation with a friend. He told me about a Chinese village where villagers had started to sell things online. Now this is common knowledge, but at the time—late 2012—it was not. I was shocked. I knew e-commerce was a big deal, but I didn’t realize that it might have democratized market access so that rural households can participate in the national market. I then took a trip to China and visited some e-commerce villages and the AIibaba headquarter. I got fascinated by how employees in Alibaba – a private company – used terms very similar to government language. For example, they talked about ‘rule by man,’ ‘rule by law’ when discussing market regulatory issues; they were uncertain about how to define property rights over data; they talked about many collaborative projects with the government in different realms of governance. I found this parallel between private and public regulatory institutions super interesting. I also thought it might point to some fundamental changes in how China was governed. Therefore, I shifted my research field from IPE to China.
Very prescient! So, what up and coming avenues of research do you find interesting now?
LLZ: There is a lot of interesting and exciting new directions, but I keep coming back to two things. One is the political foundation of economic growth. Many scholars have made great contributions to this topic. Now, a very interesting question is, as China’s old growth engines (investment, export) lose steam, how to sustain growth and how those political foundations are going to change.
The second part is what I’m working on now—the politics of data. As data becomes a basic economic input in the digital era, how does it affect politics? China scholars have pioneered in this field by studying how data can be used for political control, e.g., censorship, surveillance, and disinformation. I think there is more to study. For example, I’ve been thinking about how data sovereignty and data nationalism are going to affect China’s foreign relations. The U.S. investigation into Tiktok is a case in point. These all point to a question of how we think about state power. In the past, we think about power in terms of trade, military, etc. But the basis of power is changing. Nowadays, power is also about having the capacity to collect, analyze, commercialize, and regulate data. This is a very exciting avenue of research. This is also where studying China can contribute to our general understandings about politics.
Definitely very hot topics, and questions that have implications far beyond just the study of China. How do you think that Chinese politics can contribute to the larger comparative politics literature?
LLZ: Countries are not independent units. As China’s interactions with other countries increase, what happens within China will have externalities. I also believe that, at a high level of abstraction, you can always derive from Chinese politics some general rules that apply to other countries. In Chinese, it is called searching for 道. It’s difficult. For me, it’s also a learning process.
What advice do you have for someone like me that is just starting out in the field? In particular, I’m interested in doing fieldwork, in conducting interviews, but understand that is becoming increasingly difficult.
LLZ: First, get WeChat if you don’t have it already. Add your interviewees as Wechat friends, so that you can ask follow-up questions even if you are not in China. Follow what news they share on Wechat to keep updated with the latest changes in the field. And try to join WeChat groups that discuss topics related to your research; in this way you can conduct online ethnography by observing how people actually think and talk. Of course, you need to keep in mind two things: (1) potential information bias and self-censorship on WeChat; (2) data security on WeChat: protect yourself and the people you are messaging with.
Second, small talk and relationship matter. I once spent three days with a group of online sellers in Heibei. I was introduced to them out of the blue and they didn’t trust me initially. On day 1, I asked a sensitive question about tax burden, and one seller immediately warned others to be careful about what they said. But on day 3, after we got familiar with each other, I asked an even more sensitive question about 刷单 (generating fake transactions to boost the ratings of an online store). The same seller that was wary at first opened up and told me everything. It was an awesome interview. Therefore, be patient. Don’t just schedule short trips. You need to be in the field for a long enough time to build trust.
Third, don’t have strong priors. The research question you are studying might not be the one that matters. In particular, pay attention to things that seem counterintuitive. Don’t assume you’re wrong. I was very frustrated at the beginning of my fieldwork. At the time, my main question was the relationship between online sellers and local governments, because you would expect that political connections matter, and online sellers might need support from the state. Yet I found very little to no interaction between the state and the sellers. I had a sleepless night. My advisor Jean (Oi) then called me from the US — at 4am my time (laughs). She said that precisely what’s interesting is the counterintuitive finding that the sellers can sell so much with no interaction with the state. So, I continued research, trying to figure out: if the state is not providing institutional support, where does it come from? Turns out it is the platform. The takeaway is, if things don’t make sense, don’t assume your findings are wrong. There might be an opportunity for theory building.
Other than fieldwork, what other challenges do you foresee for those of us trying to study China from outside China?
LLZ: It depends a lot on how sensitive a topic is; sadly, studying some topics can be risky for researchers. Also, it’s a lot more difficult to do survey research in China now than before. Having connections or local contacts is critical.
How do you get them to say yes?
LLZ: It was about framing and asking indirect questions. Also, if you need help from a local institution for a survey or RCT, don’t just beg for the opportunity. Saying “please do me a favor” will not necessarily get them to say yes. Think about whether and how the other party can also benefit from your research. Sometimes, there is a win-win: your research can help them understand the situation better, or even help their future work. How to frame your project is important.
Any final words of advice for students just starting out?
LLZ: First, mental health is important. Take breaks and vacations. Working all the time can lower your productivity. Postponing pleasure doesn’t always help. You need to enjoy the process. Second, study an important topic for your dissertation. Be picky. This goes against my first point—but torture yourself a little bit to find the right topic (laughs). Ask yourself: “Why should we care”? Don’t commit to a topic just because you have a dataset or there is a gap in literature. Studying an important topic is rewarding on the job market, and defines you as a scholar. Third, it’s okay to explore at the beginning of grad school. But close to the job market, it’s better to have a strong academic identity. Don’t work on projects that are too far away from your core expertise. Finally, read broadly and think outside the box. I once asked my advisor Barry Weingast about his formula of academic success. He said “take risks and arbitrage.” By arbitrage he meant borrowing wisdom from other disciplines, or even from outside academia. I benefited a lot from reading economics, management science, and legal studies. My biggest theoretical breakthrough for my dissertation was inspired by reading something unrelated to tech and China: medieval European history.