Interviewer: Zeren Li
What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?
RT: I had a high school history teacher who was my favorite teacher, and before I went to college, he took me aside and said, if you do one thing in college, you should learn about China. I didn’t have much interest in China, but I just respected him so much that I decided to take Chinese in my freshman year. After that, I went to China every summer, and I taught English. I left undergraduate with a deep interest in China, but not necessarily the politics of the place.
Then I returned to my Ph.D. program, and eventually, I realized that there was such a good foundation in the Chinese politics field. But compared to other fields in political science, there are also many opportunities to try new things and the Chinese government was becoming more transparent, so I was just excited. It took me a while to realize I wanted to become a China scholar. But I was just excited to try to make contributions.
What interesting research avenues do you see coming up in Chinese politics?
RT: The narrative right now about Chinese politics research is that everything is getting harder. It’s harder to do fieldwork because the security environment is changing. So my personal feeling is that certain types of research are getting harder. If you talk to historians, the archives are being sanitized right now. Today, you can’t do projects you could do 10 years ago in history. It will be more difficult to make contributions in some aspects of the China field. But at the same time, certain parts of the Chinese government are becoming more transparent and more rule-based. For example, I’m excited to do more work on the legal system, which is online now. We have 60 million files covering criminal proceedings and administrative procedures. There are probably 30 dissertations yet to be written with that data. We need to be opportunistic and on the lookout for finding new types of data.
However, it will be harder to do some research that we used to do. But I do think there are opportunities to be working on new data issues, and it might require us to be more creative when we consider it.
It seems that judicial politics is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the research of Chinese politics in recent days. Now we are available to many “big” data.
RT: The China law field is very vibrant and very exciting. We are doing work at the intersection of political science and law so there’s some room for collaboration. One of the issues——you and I face is that we’re not lawyers, it is hard for us to understand the law and how the courts work. To address this issue, increasing collaboration between the legal studies community and the political science community could be fruitful.
How do you think Chinese politics can contribute to the general literature of comparative political science?
RT: This is a classic question. My feeling is we should be market leaders in the study of authoritarianism. I look at our department and comparative politics. Many students are interested in authoritarian regimes such as the Middle East, Russia, and Africa. We should be leaders in developing research methods, concepts, theories about authoritarian politics.
However, the issue is that we tend to generalize our studies to other authoritarian countries without actually studying others. I think one thing that will be helpful is to do a more direct comparison. For example, we can do a project in China and directly replicate it in Vietnam or somewhere else. I hope that we do need to do more like a field and reach out to other people who are doing similar micro-level work in different regions. What we should be doing is to deeply engage people who study the Middle East and in Russia. And I think that would be one way to build those relationships and potentially a broader impact.
Do you have any advice for collecting data, doing interviews, and doing fieldwork in China?
RT: I’m probably not the best in terms of fieldwork. I just say a few pieces of my advice. The first is that no project is more important than your safety or the safety of people. Lily Tsai wrote that advice in that edited volume on research methods in China. We are always tempted to do things that are on the edge, sensitive. The most interesting topics in China are usually sensitive, so we always push it, and we should be pushing it, but we don’t want our research to have negative effects on people who are research assistants or collaborators in China. So I’m cautious in general. I have been more cautious over time. So that’s advice one. And it’s a sad piece of advice.
The second piece of advice is to keep trying. Don’t give up on the fieldwork or these sorts of things. I do worry that I can be wrong in my work without solid fieldwork. It is easy to stare at quantitative data and have an interpretation that is completely wrong. However, my situation has changed. I am the father of a two-year-old. In graduate school, every year for four months I did fieldwork in China, but I cannot do that now. Alternatively, a lot of my fieldwork now is done in the U.S. I am talking to people who are Chinese and passing through New York or Philadelphia. I am trying to maintain contact with the place. Honestly, those conversations have been some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about China.
And one thing we need to do as a field is to have a real conversation about the increasing surveillance. Kevin O’Brien said this couple of years ago at a conference. He asked can you guarantee anonymity when you interview someone in China today? Can you say nobody will ever know that we met? Doing interviews becomes harder now. You probably could do that eight years ago, certainly 20 years ago. So what does that mean for IRBs and ethics? That’s something we as a field have not quite grappled with, But certainly affects all of us.
Besides the aforementioned problems, are there any other difficulties of studying Chinese politics for scholars based outside China?
RT: That’s a great question. I’m worried increasingly about ideology and the influence of ideology and political pressure on research. What we’re observing now is pressure from all sides. We know the Chinese government tends to not like such research and it’s often hostile to it. And so we’re facing pressure on that front. And then on the U.S. side now, things are so anti-China that there is some pressure from certain people in the U.S. political system to do a certain type of research on China. For example, my book finds some evidence of representation. When I was working on that project, I was just a graduate student, so people didn’t care. But there’s always a worry that I would be viewed as some sort of an apologist for the CCP. My feeling is that we should do research objectively without the influence of ideology. Sometimes the data is going to come out against the Party. Sometimes data is going to come out favorable for the Party. We need to be willing to write any of those outcomes. We shouldn’t be starting projects, trying to find certain things that are anti-party, pro-party.