Ning Leng, Assistant Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University

Interviewer: Xiaoshu Gui

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

NL: It is a natural choice for me to study China, and that comes from my Chinese identity. Why politics not economics? This is because that I am interested in institutions. I think that the China model cannot be explained by economics alone, its core is still institutions, which is a very political science subject. That is why I do Chinese politics. I just like it.

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

NL: I think state-business research will stay strong. It is important. It explains China’s economic development and where it is going. Bureaucratic politics has been really popular in the past ten years, but I think it is time to look at it from a new perspective. I think it is time to stop basically getting obsessed with cadre evaluation alone and go deeper down to see who benefit from the system and who do not, rather than treating it as a real fair meritocratic system. We need to look at the design of the system and realize that it intrinsically benefits a certain group of officials.

This is great. I have a question regarding the cadre evaluation system. Do you think the literature has been too focused on chief executives? We know little about incentive and behavior of ordinary officials who are unlikely to get promoted.

NL: That is my interest too. Cadre evaluation system actually applies to everyone. It is simply that for us, it is easier to get data on mayors and party secretaries. But we don’t have data on vice mayors, for example, and department heads. The issue of the system is that the design of it is such that some department heads under the mayor level would naturally benefit more from it than other department heads. Certain type of mid-level and junior-level city officials specializing in certain fields would get promoted easily. That has a profound consequence in how China is going to develop in the future. For example, my study includes officials in charge of infrastructure. At first, it could be a random assignment when these officials enter the bureaucratic system. But because they got assigned to the position (infrastructure), they would become the ones who get easily promoted. And then once they get promoted because of these projects, they strengthen the system to benefit their own fields. Eventually, it makes the system emphasize a lot of economic development prospects that are not necessarily sustainable. That is a design issue of the cadre evaluation system.

Why are those officials get promoted easily? Is it because that infrastructure projects are easily visible and measurable?

NL: Not just that. These projects are easily translated into GDP. And then they are visible and impressive. These officials then get promoted for their capability. My whole book is building on that premise.

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

NL: That is difficult to answer, and that is what we need to think about. It probably lies in the way of how we ask questions. I don’t think I have a good answer right now. I think we need to develop good theories, and I don’t think that studying China is necessarily in contradiction to having a good theory. A good theory does not necessarily have to be generalizable. If you have a narrow but deep theory, that’s still valuable.

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

NL: It needs to be creative when it comes to data collection. So many people are working on data scraping, but that only works for certain topics. It is a dilemma. It’s very difficult. I have less and less trust in year books. I am trying to not use them for any key independent variables. After I interview people compiling these year books, I simply just don’t think those data are good. The horrible thing is that they don’t just fabricate data in the same fashion. Some of them  sometimes would inflate data, but other times deflate data—no systematic trend. That’s why I become very suspicious of it. I think data is going to be a huge challenge to the China field and I expect that it is gonna bring back appreciation for good qualitative research. But that is another issue in the current political atmosphere: how do you do interviews with government officials or businessmen? The most difficult would be with officials. My advice is to spend a long time in China and then try to build local connections. It would be worth it, but it is very time-consuming.

Any tips for graduate students to build connections with local officials?

NL: Build connection through people you know. Go do some free labor for them. I have a friend who is a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He is an American white male, but he did very successful fieldwork in China, partly by providing free consultation for local governments. So it is absolutely not undoable, you just need to invest your time in it—you know, provide data analyses or something else. They[local governments] actually need people with techie skills. Even though they might already have skillful employees within the government, they don’t mind more people to do it sometimes. It is hard, but you have to try to build connections with them.

Difficulties of studying Chinese politics for scholars based outside China?

NL: I am working on a project with my co-author Elizabeth Plantan, who is a post-doc at Harvard. This project looks at how academics in China and academics outside of China do research differently. We find that scholars outside of China have more advantage in determining what they want to do. They have way more freedom in topic selection. So suggestions for us who based outside China: go back often! You know, just keep it real. I think we are actually at an advantage a lot of the times compared to academics based in China. We don’t suffer from as much censorship as them.