Meg Rithmire, F. Warren McFarlan Associate Professor of Business of Administration, Harvard Business School

Interviewer: Hongshen Zhu

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

MR: I knew this family from high school. Everyone in that family is born in China including a child of my age. They stayed in the US after 1989 as part of the Tiananmen Amnesty generation. The parents were graduate students in the US. The father of the family became a novelist and he wrote about politics. I became friends with the family and became interested in China in high school and then when I went to college I studied Chinese. I thought I would be interested in literature but then for my first time when I went to China I became interested in politics. Everything is political. I was really interested in Chinese political history, particularly the Maoist period. That was 1990s and early 2000s, so there was a lot of growth, a lot of uncertainty about the rules and excitement about the future.

That’s the era Peter Hessler wrote about in Oracle Bones.

MR: Exactly. I love Oracle Bones and the earlier book River Town he wrote in 1990s. 

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

MR: My focus is on political economy so let me say from a political economist’s view of what is interesting. I think there are some things we really misunderstood about the way that capitalists relate to the state. We had this long generation of work produced about why haven’t capitalists demand political reforms in China? The answer that people have come up with is that they are co-opted and I’m not really convinced that the the business class can be co-opted. I think they’re much savvier than that. I’m trying to understand historically and contemporarily how the capitalists related to the state. Given the history of distrust between CCP and capitalists in China and the lack of formal security in the 70s and 80s when private capitalists started to take off, why and how were they willing to do this? What were their relationships with political authorities and how did that change over time? I’m really dissatisfied with the idea of co-optation and I think there’s probably a lot more that both the state and capitalists get from each other. And also ways in which they threaten each other and make each other vulnerable that we don’t really understand. 

I think it’s part of a larger and one of the main questions in Chinese politics: what do different social groups in China really think of the regime and what do they really want? What are the mechanisms of control? I think there’s a lot of work to be done. I think the focus on repression is interesting and I think there’s a lot of repression, but the vast majority of what happens is not repression. It’s something else and what is that? I think the private sector is happy to be co-opted and be loyal to the regime as long as they can make money. But if they can’t make money, are they still going to be loyal to the regime? I’m not so sure.

So I think we need to be more rigorous than that and trying to understand what different social groups are giving to and getting from the regime. That is the avenue I am interested in. 

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

MR: The general question of how authoritarian regimes work is getting so much more attention already partly because of China. I started graduate school in 2004 when the literature was all about how people make demands in democracies, how democracies work and how authoritarian regimes fall. How does the authoritarian regime work was not quite popular. Now there’s a huge research agenda about two things: one is how authoritarian regimes maintain power, and one is how do their politics and policies work, like poverty alleviation or environmental governance or growth. Because they don’t do them the same way that democracies do. That said, I don’t think the focus should be on China’s institutions. I don’t think power is vested in institutions in China, it is vested in different practices, such as campaigns, mobilization, propaganda rather than in people’s congresses or village councils. I think that power is probably practiced outside of institutions in China. Just as Tom Pepinsky said in his BJPS article, we are focused on institutions because we are political scientists, and in democracies institutions matter a lot. But in authoritarian regimes, institutions, like they are anywhere, tend to be reflections of social bargains.

They are outcomes themselves.

MR: Yes. We’re attributing too much causality to institutions when in fact it’s not institutions but the underlying social bargains that we should look at. I think we have an opportunity to show how power works in different ways. and there are a lot of people who are doing great work on that. Dan Mattingly and Lily Tsai and that whole stream of research show how the party works with different kinds of social groups. Works on propaganda and the micro mechanisms of political opinion and popular thought are also very interesting. I think there is a lot of opportunities for us to understand those dynamics from the Chinese perspective and to push back against the general comparative trend (of focus on institutions).

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

MR: I did the fieldwork from my first book in a much different time. It was between 2007 and 2009 and I used local archives which are now closed. So I in that sense I was very lucky and since you are Chinese nationals, it may be harder in some ways and easier in other ways in getting those archives. I do think there are a lot of documentary sources that are available. I do a lot of interviews but I tend to cite based on documents because I want the work to be replicable in that way. I think doing fieldwork in China is really hard and idiosyncratic and depends on your own network. So I think your idea of using personal networks is a totally fine way to do it. The way that I use interviews sometimes is for people to tell me what documents I need to look at. I still think documents are available and they’re increasingly available. But just because the data are available doesn’t mean they are interesting.  The empirical work I’ve been doing recently is using the Industry and Commerce Bureau data on corporate filling. The problem of the census data on firms is that it categorizes firms in an unsatisfactory way. I want to know how many layers of ownership are there and whether the legal person is the same person with the CEO, etc. These data are interesting and available to use.

 My bottom-line piece of advice is to always do everything totally above the board. Be sure that you are doing research under the right permission. Be sure that you are getting introduction letters to go to different places. Don’t do guerrilla research because US-China relations are very delicate right now and there is a history in our field that the whole field being shut out of China because people have done fieldwork in the wrong way. So I think now more than ever we have to be very careful. If you can’t get that document you wanted to get, it doesn’t matter. You will be able to do the work based on other published sources. There’s a lot of publicly available data that if you can use that creatively and be creative about how you find it, they could be very useful. It is not worth it to break the rules, because the worst thing that can happen for you, a Chinese national, is way worse than you losing your career. For me, if I were to violate the rules in China then what if I cannot get visa to ever go back? Then my career would be over. No research is worth that. If the government does not allow me work in one province then I will not consider it even if I have a friend who will take me to the village I want to study. 

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

MR: Huge difficulties. I think we are in a very scary period of US-China relations and suspicion of China in this country makes me worried about our own government’s incursion into the study of China. Frequently I am invited to give talks to US government officials and it’s great if we can influence the conversation of US-China policy. On the other hand, I am very nervous about getting involved in US politics to create unnecessary complications. If a member of Congress wants me to help with something like China’s industries I will do it, but will I tell an FBI agent how China works? I don’t think that’s appropriate for me to be doing. The other thing is that the more complicated US-China relations get, the more people are going to have opinions about what China scholars should be doing.

As Chinese politics becomes more interesting to people, I don’t want the whole field to feel pressured to understand things like repression and surveillance only, there’s still needs for people doing work on history, on local governments even though now we don’t think them as the most interesting. We need people working on a diverse group of things and I don’t want the people gravitating towards topics that seem to be more relevant to our current dilemma. We don’t know a lot about the early reform and how the state really related to capitalists. Those are easier topics to study right now because you can actually get a lot of public archives. We shouldn’t be pushing our students to work on things that seem super sexy right now, while there are topics that you can get more data about and are less sensitive. If you look at the careers of some of the most successful people, it’s not that they have just looked at only contemporary topics. They’ve done very high quality work no matter what the subject is.