Samantha Vortherms, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California Irvine

Interviewer: Hongshen Zhu

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

SV: I got into China after doing work on Europe and became much more interested in China than in Germany. When I started working on China it makes me challenge the assumptions that I had of how the system works, how institutions work, how the state relates to people. Doing the work makes me be very upfront with these assumptions. I find there are a lot of very diverse questions that are still unanswered in Chinese politics in understanding how the state works, how it changes because it’s a very dynamic system. I find it very interesting and expect it to remain interesting. 

What were your assumptions? 

SV: We come in with an understanding of how a system does and should work. After college I lived in Shenzhen for a year as  a teacher, working with the education bureau. The understanding of general concepts such as what is private and what is not can be totally different. That kind of cultural adjustment made me rethink what we expect of our government and what the state should provide. If you talk to an average American about social security provision and healthcare provision, the relationship of what the state should provide is in a completely different context than what it is in China. So I really appreciated as an individual entering into a new environment that makes me rethink state-individual relationships. Why do I and other people think about it in different ways? Putting me outside of my comfort zone actually made me much more comfortable. That self reflection is something that I enjoyed. 

What interesting research avenues do you see coming up in China?

SV: I think in Chinese politics as a field, there are a lot of really big questions that still haven’t been answered. Such as exactly how the local government works. Take the literature on elite management, mayors and party secretary. How they move forward and the relationship between meritocracy and connections. The literature talks about how mayors are responsible for day to day things and party secretaries are about big picture. What do we know that from? What’s the actual evidence about this division of labor? Even in this area of research where we have a lot of publication and data, we still don’t know those fundamental relationships of that grey zone. Much about how the local government functions is yet to be researched. Similarly, so much of our research is based on primary research cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, assuming these cities can represent the all of China. I study hukou policy. I can do a historical trajectory of Beijing’s hukou. That is an important case, but it’s not the whole picture. In order to understand China as a system we have to understand all of the variation that happens. 

Intergovernmental relationships and how processes work differently in different cities are all really interesting. A lot of us pick our level of analysis. But how does the city usually relate to the county? Exactly how much control does the city-level government have over the county-level budget? I think there’s a lot more work to do in that area and those are the things that I look forward to reading from all of our junior colleague in the future. 

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

SV: Yes, this is something I feel very strongly about because there are generally two worlds: there’s like China is the exception versus China is just another country. I’m talking to people in field work or try to get articles into general comparative politics journals, people say “China is just different.” I think that’s a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about it. It’s possible that China has something different and it’s our job to say how and in what ways it is not different in order to inform our comparative theories. It’s a double-edged sword to study such a large and important country like China because we have a very strong audience within ourselves. But it is often very difficult both for us to speak to other people and for other people to listen to us. Trying to situates ourselves in comparative politics, I’d start from subnational level where we can control a lot of variables and study variations within one context. That does mean that we have to  be very serious about what it means to have one country context. I think that China is an excellent testing ground for a lot of theories that are developed primarily in Europe, which dominated our field. It can tell us what transfers and what does not transfer and why.

So local states can be seen as small nation states?

SV: Well, it depends. Subnational states don’t have full authority or full autonomy. Take hukou policy as an example, some cities specifically take international immigration regimes to write their hukou policies. Based on some of the qualitative work I’ve done, this was very purposeful. It does not just happen that we have a high-skill recruitment track that looks exactly like Canada’s. And the rationale for doing it and the consequences of those policy decisions are going to be quite similar. However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it is one element within the system and the city of Guangzhou is under the province of Guangdong. This is why we need to know more about those power relationships between these different levels of government. 

Do you have any advice for collecting data, doing interviews or doing field work in China?

SV: My general advice to anybody doing field work in China is being as social as possible. This is an advice given to me by one of my graduate student colleagues.  Because you never know what connection is going to lead where and who you’re going to meet. For example, one of my most important connections that I made during fieldwork was because I sat on an airplane next to someone who works for the central government. And he very eagerly chatted with me when I was reading Dorothy Solinger’s Contesting Citizenship in Urban China. We had a three-hour-long conversation, exchanged business cards, he gave me introductions and I would never have done that if I wasn’t on that airplane. 

It’s frustrating because it means that you can’t control a lot of things but you can be strategic about it. If you go into the field and you stay in your apartment all day, that wouldn’t get you so far. If you put yourself out there and contact people and create opportunities for things to happen or space for opportunities to come, that would be very helpful.

The second piece of advice was given to me by one of my committee members who said “always be thinking of the second projects.” You have your primary goals and you should have secondary goals as well. So that you can make the most of your fieldwork time. 

Be open-minded about what data you’re looking for and what you can draw from different data sources. If you go in with blinders and say I need this piece of information and then you’re gonna miss everything around it. And a lot of times the the best opportunities are ones that you stumble upon because you didn’t know that they were there in the first place, but you discovered in the process of fieldwork. 

I came back from the field with so much data, more than what I can even imagine. I am still working my way through everything that I find “randomly.” 

While talking to people about availability of some information, someone may say “actually, I’ve seen that somewhere” and you just collect. So keep your mind open and have conversations about your work with other people. Meeting researchers and talking to researchers in the field. Those are the two most helpful pieces of advice that I have for collecting data. 

Besides the aforementioned problems, are there any other difficulties of studying Chinese politics as a scholar outside China?

SV: Try not to put your research in a way that would be perceived as sensitive. 

I study hukou and I could go around and ask the government officials about the human rights abuses of keeping people institutionally isolated and lacking even identity cards. But that is not very helpful. 

Instead I can talk about access to government services and the institutions that are in place because there’s no value judgment there. No matter what I feel personally, a concrete approach to some of the research helps a lot. 

The difficult research environment now actually creates more opportunities for working with people and more collaborative research. A greater collaborative space between researchers based here and researchers based in China balances that environment to keep intellectual work flowing even in difficult times. 

The environment actually catalyses people to work together.

SV: Yes. People do surveys in China now really have little hope of doing it in the same way that they did it before. You need a lot more support and deeper local networks in order to get the same type of work done. On the one hand, this is more onerous because it requires a lot more networking. But on the other hand, it makes work better because the local knowledge and the collaborative process make things better. It’s important now for us to make our work adaptive to the environment.