William Hurst, Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

Interviewer: Hongshen Zhu

What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?

WH: I’ve never had a good story with which to answer this question. I started studying Chinese language when I was 14 and continued. At around that time, I was also interested in Chinese political philosophy and history, eventually it just seemed to be the way to go. There was no one critical moment or turning point. It was more of an organic, process that unfolded between about the ages of 13 to 18.

Which Chinese philosopher do you find the most interesting?

WH: Of classical philosophers: Hanfeizi. He is neglected in most scholarship on Chinese political philosophy, but I think he is actually the most influential thinker by far in terms of structuring Chinese politics. Confucianism has only ever been a tool to make people go through formalistic exercises, even today. I definitely think Hanfeizi is the most interesting figure in classical Chinese philosophy.

More recently, in the 19th and early 20th Century, I would say Liang Qichao. I, of course, also wish more scholars read Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi and took them seriously – Liu’s essays on party organization and discipline and Mao’s essays on everything. The whole role of ideology and political thought drops out in the work of most of the younger generations of scholars today. This is a mistake, because ideology is still there – and it has to be there for the Communist Party to exist.

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

WH: I wish more people would pursue research on subnational comparison. I wish people would attempt more side-by-side and inter-area cross-national comparisons. I wish people could be less obsessed with omphaloskeptic methodologically-driven investigations of small-bore questions, and instead look at questions that are both theoretically bolder and substantively more important. I think it is still possible to do solid empirical research on China, both quantitative and qualitative. Archival research is really challenging right now, but not impossible – and that basically is not being touched by political scientists, particularly for work on more macro questions.

If we are going to stay small with a given study, it is better to get it right in terms of new empirical knowledge and new substantive data. I think we are over-valuing methodologically-driven analysis of existing data and addressing it through very narrow theoretical interest, theories are too often just off-the-shelf or taken uncritically from other subfields of political science. I don’t think this is adding much to the research being done on the ground. It would be helpful if we could topics and uncover data that are going to add something to the conversation of Chinese politics that is still meaningful five, or even twenty, years from now. Something like Xi Jinping’s effort to craft a new plausible ideological program is definitely meaningful. How different levels of government work, from village to central, and looking at it in a way that is systematic and comparative across different regions of China or between China and other states. That is likely to be meaningful. We, as a field, lost interest in China’s political economy ten to fifteen years ago.

Now it may be a good time to return to that. These are the areas that are very interesting to me, but we need to approach them in a theoretically bolder and substantively more innovative way. Also, as this workshop has emphasized, the interaction between domestic and international politics in China has a lot of potential. I think that requires us to break down barriers between comparativists and international relations scholars, as well as barriers between China specialists and others. That also means we need to get deep training on other areas (not just China). After breaking down these barriers, we can address both international politics and domestic politics more effectively.

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

WH: The general comparative politics should pay more attention to what is substantively and theoretically important coming out of Chinese politics. And the methodological obsession that is the current fads in the general literature needs to come to an end so that people can see what is valuable and what is not. Introducing the worst kind of trendy research in general comparative politics will just destroy the China field. It does not help the general field get over its own problem.

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

WH: There is no one way to do it. Field research or any data-based research needs to be like jazz. You need a standard, but also need to able to improvise. It cannot be rigidly trained for. You cannot predict what is going to happen. Opportunities will open, but at the same time there will be problems you cannot anticipate. You get something useless after a lot of work; or you think something is not going to work, but it actually does.  You may find something in one day that turns out to be more useful than something you thought about and worked on for many months. You have to know what your theme is, and you have to be able to spot what actually works and what does not in real time. I don’t know how to teach that. You have to learn to be like a good jazz musician. This is getting harder, as more archives are closed and you cannot get access to interviewees through most official channels. If you want to study an institution, there may be no side channels to get around that. In comparison, studying workers (or others “outside the system”) can be easier. You can talk with different kinds of workers in different regions and you are not putting them at undue risk – and they have a lot to say! Same goes for others, like farmers or low-level civil servants. 

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

WH: Yes. It is very easy to lose touch with the discourse of politics that exists and evolves in China. But if you are in China, it is easy to miss how bounded or time-specific that discourse is. You can watch what is happening in real time while not realizing that this is just today’s conversation. What seems important now may not be important six months from now, let alone five years from now. Also it may be very bounded to China-specific contexts and may not apply to any more general context. So when you are there, you need to work hard to discern what is really important and what is time-specific.

When you are not there, it is hard to remember what is going on day-to-day and it can be even harder to get the feel of what is really important. I think a lot of times, scholars looking from overseas miss the important questions, the ones that are most meaningful and interesting. That said, scholars in China may have the temptation to chase whatever is the hot topic right now, which might not be a useful thing to study later.