Margaret Pearson, Dr. Horace E. and Wilma V. Harrison Distinguished Professor, and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park

Interviewer: Xiaoshu Gui

Could you tell us how did you get interested in studying Chinese politics?

MP: I always have had an interest in China since I was in high school. Often, people of my generation would say they had a grandparent who did business in China or was a missionary. I don’t have any interesting story like that. I was learning about China’s economic development in the 1970s. Although I did not realize it, my teachers were Maoists from the University of Illinois party cell.  I thought it was very interesting, so I continued to study it in college and graduate school.

Then why did you find China’s economic development interesting in the 70s? Do you mean after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open-up policy?

MP: No, it was before that. Actually, I took the first interest in China in 1976, before Deng Xiaoping took power. I was interested in China’s economic model of dealing with inequality. This was at the end of the Cultural Revolution and much of the information was not correct, but I was being told that China was solving a lot of problems. I’ve always interested in the interaction between state and market, or state and local economic activities.

You are quite a pioneer! Many people began to study China after the reform, but you grew an interest even before that. Could you elaborate more on how you found your dissertation topic?

MP: Sure. I studied international political economy. There is a dependency school in international political economy suggested that if poor peripheral countries open to foreign capital, they will become clients of the wealth state—you know, sort of the center-peripheral relationship. The Chinese government rejected foreign capital from 1949 to 1979, however, it began to accept it since 1979.  Therefore, when I started my dissertation (and I did field research for my dissertation in 1983 and 1984), it was to understand how the Chinese government was planning to control the negative effect of foreign capital. It was a question actually, not so much a puzzle. A government that had always said that it doesn’t want to absorb foreign capital, now saying that “we need it, but we are going to control it. We are going to take the good and have a screen to keep out the flies.”  Then what were the policies formulated in order to do it? So it was a question generated by a change in the world. China changed from one kind of development model to another but tried to take control of how that new development model would affect values that the government did not like.

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

MP: I do feel like the study of bureaucracy is ready for a rebirth. The study of Chinese political institutions has focused heavily on the promotion system, the legislative institutions and selection choices for those among voters. But I feel like that we tend to still have this image of China’s bureaucracy as being from fragmented authoritarianism and that sometimes, while the theory is not static, there’s a lot of interesting things going on that are missed (such as Andrew Nathan is talking about it today), about how the bureaucracy is being reformed continuously. And also, there are tensions between Weberian bureaucracy and the idea of Leninist expectations of responsiveness. If you know our article in Governance[1], it examines how the Chinese government is trying to handle these two models. We look at that dynamic just in terms of the science and technology system, but I think there are many interesting directions one could take, particularly in directions when you have companies involved. Some people are looking at electric vehicles—that’s a very interesting place to look at, where you have very strong policy directives, international market and very important commercial considerations. How does the bureaucracy respond to that? I don’t know. I think it is quite worth exploring. It is really hard to come up with research questions, but you know there’s something exciting going on. It is good to be able to explore it a little bit and then figure out your research questions.

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

MP: It is harder now. It used to be very open before the mid 2000s, I mean economic data. It was quite easy for me to talk with economic officials then, but now it is getting harder. I don’t have any good advice. It is possible. You have to put time into it. I personally think that the best way for students is to become a visitor in a university. Of course, it is easier if you look at issues that are less sensitive. As I just mentioned electric vehicles—it is important, but not that sensitive. My advice would be to see if there is a research center at a university where you could spend a period of time there if you have a small grant. Some people just want to go to China and get all the data at once and then come back to analyze it, but it is very hard to do that. You can do a small pilot study there, get to know people and to see where it goes. It could be very frustrating, but it is really important to spend time in China, even if you are Chinese. You should try to look at things at the very ground level and talk to people there.

Any difficulties of studying Chinese politics for scholars based outside China?

MP: Data and access would be the real question. Besides that, I don’t see any other problems that are specific to Chinese politics. Scholars face similar challenges: publication, competition, trying to figure out the puzzle and research design and et cetera. These are standard problems. I don’t know that they are special to China.

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

MP: I think it is part of that general literature. Some of the questions that general literature of comparative politics is interested in are less interesting to Chinese politics scholars. Some other topics that people in Chinese politics are interested in are less interesting to comparative politics. They both have strengths. We should admit that there are still disconnects between the general comparative literature and the study of China. It is helpful to make connections to the broader literature as part of the motivation for your thesis. That is important because you are framing your question in ways that everyone else should be able to understand it. But in terms of contributions to the general literature, I am less concerned about it. I personally think that it is enough to just study China, as long as your research question is really interesting.

[1] Zhi, Q., & Pearson, M. M. (2017). China’s Hybrid Adaptive Bureaucracy: The Case of the 863 Program for Science and Technology. Governance30(3), 407-424.