Interviewer: Griffin Riddler
What sparked your interest in studying Chinese politics and the research that you are interested in?
WS: Before grad school, I was working as a volunteer and freelance consultant in the international development community in Southeast Asia. This was in the mid-2000s, and I wasn’t really interested in politics per se, prior to that point. I was trained as an economist for undergrad. But when I was there, I saw, from a very grassroots and very on-the-ground level, the Chinese capital flooding into the mountainous community I was in overnight. Large groups of Chinese investors just dropped in on us like helicopters, and so I was really curious about this phenomenon. And, I guess, my work then was, as a volunteer and a consultant, to help the international aid community to just figure out what’s going on and how that was going to impact their programmatic work in these communities. And in the process of doing that, it sparked my interest, wanting to understand what exactly is driving this phenomenon. And then I realized I needed to understand China itself much better, the domestic politics of China’s economic policies, and that approach to understanding China’s footprint around the world still guides my work today.
The next question we have looks to the future. What interesting research do you see yourself or other scholars in your area of study coming up?
WS: I’m not sure if this is an interesting area of research per se, but I feel that as a discipline, everybody would benefit if there could be greater connection between the work on China, whether it’s about China’s domestic politics side or China’s external relations side, to the disciplinary literatures. I’m not sure if this is something that the China field itself can be the lone advocate for this kind of development. I think that it is important to have insight on to what extent China fits with, or does not fit with, some of the conventional wisdom we’ve developed around international political economy, or in how co-optation and power-sharing works in a general comparative politics context, or in international security. And I see that there are two aspects to this. One is that the work itself is useful, although I don’t think people value it as much as I like. It is valuable to test some of the prevailing theories, like what shapes FDI or patterns of trade, and conventional wisdoms of IPE in the Chinese case. So that’s sort of the aspect of testing empirical implications of conventional theories within the Chinese case. And the other aspect is more comparative work.
So cross-country comparative?
WS: Yes, but I don’t mean running cross-national regressions. For example, how the organization of state capitalism varies across countries: in the end, what are the implications of similarities and differences between these countries?
So, not just baseline empirical testing, but a deeper understanding of how these larger concepts, like state capitalism, vary across countries, so that way you can make the concept more illustrative—
WS: Sorry to interrupt, but to be more clear, the first one is when you have a very well-established theory, particularly in IPE, where the conventional wisdom comes from economics, and you want to test the general models in the Chinese case. But in the case of, say, state capitalism, which is not all that well-defined to begin with, then the second approach is more fruitful, because there is no general model to test.
I wanted to ask you for advice you would give to up-and-coming scholars. So, one, do you have any advice about data collection, fieldwork, conducting interviews, just in the Chinese context? Two, what suggestion would you give to a first-year grad student interested in studying Chinese politics during an era of globalization, but where studying within China has become more difficult for foreign scholars in particular?
WS: I don’t know, it’s hard to see the future. I guess I generally tell my own students now just to be practical. Maybe, you would rather be a “plus China” kind of person. It can be methods plus China, IPE plus China, CPE plus China; as opposed to just a China specialist. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and the world will continue to demand that; this is purely from a practical standpoint, of getting a job, etc. But I always then caveat by saying, that on the margins you can have those considerations guide your decision, but only on the margins. Mostly, you should do whatever interests you, and if what interests you is, I don’t know, understanding elite politics in China, you will find a way to study it no matter what. My own dissertation co-chair, Susan Shirk, I think when she wrote her first book, she couldn’t even get into China, since it was prior to Nixon. I think she wrote the whole book in Hong Kong by getting interviews with people.
I remember listening to an interview with her where she talked about the “old way,” where scholars would go to Hong Kong and then officials would come over the border.
WS: Yeah, and there was no Internet then.
So the opportunities are always changing?
WS: There will always be ways to study. And often, what people do when they run into obstacles and problems, you can often take a step back and think about whether the obstacle or problem can be the object of study in itself, rather than just an obstacle to your previous study.
What I take away from that is to not be discouraged by setbacks or obstacles, and always keep your mind open to different possibilities.
WS: Yes, don’t get discouraged, but also be open-minded and flexible.
Say you are at the orientation for first-year graduate students. What’s the one piece of advice for successfully pursuing a Ph.D. that you would give them? Or is that just what you said earlier?
WS: I would just say study what you’re interested in, and be persistent and flexible. There is no need to be too strategic. It takes a pretty long time and things change, so you should just study what you like.