Interviewer: Peng Peng
How did you get interested in studying Chinese politics?
XBL: My story is kind of funny. When I started out my graduate school, I specifically don’t want to study Chinese politics. I was more interested in political economy. But after preparing for the qualifying exam, I realized that there were many gaps in the existing literature, and I believed that studying Chinese politics can help us understand political economy issues in China better. That was my change of heart during my first summer. Many people viewed qualifying exam as a hurdle, but it enlightened me on what we know and what we don’t know, and what are interesting research questions. That is how I got into studying Chinese politics.
What are those missing gaps in the existing literature?
XBL: I started with welfare literature in western countries like Western Europe and the US. It was a well-developed literature. But political economy literature on China was insufficient. Remember: I started my PhD in 2005. At that time, the literature focused mainly on the central-local government relations and there was not so much on exploring the subnational variation. Also, not many studied used causal inference methods or better identification strategies, trying to rule out potential confounders. So, I thought both empirical and theoretical studies on Chinese politics can be advanced.
Your works used subnational analysis and explained local incentives very well. How did you get that idea?
XBL: Normally, my ideas come from identifying a puzzle, meaning a phenomenon that we observe in the world that cannot be explained by the existing literature. We don’t know what is driving the expending pattern of education across China. In my dissertation, I examined education spending and inequality of opportunity. In China, competition over educational resources is fierce. In order to get into prestigious universities, Chinese parents send their kids to expensive primary, middle, and high schools. So, kids in underdeveloped areas cannot afford investment in education and have unequal education resources. You really have to open up your eyes to see the world and identify interesting phenomena and questions that cannot be explained by the existing literature. For some other people, they generate puzzles by identifying the gaps in the existing literature. But in the end, you want to have a dialogue with the the real world instead of just the literature, and you should be thinking about how your research question can go beyond merely academic debates.
Do you think this presents an opportunity for the young generation because the literature on authoritarian institutions are underdeveloped?
XBL: Yes or no. Different generations have different academic fads. When I was at Yale as a PhD student, we had an entire cohort that studied political violence. I think at the end of the day, you should think about what questions matter to you, what questions help us understand how the society works. Those should be the questions that keep you up at night, not just popular topics. I think part of the reason why students these days become less interested in getting the right questions is that there is a lot of emphasis on methods training. Of course, methods training is important. But graduate students should also think about interesting questions.
How do you think studying Chinese politics can contribute to the general literature of political economy?
XBL: there are different ways. Last year at the conference, we talked about the lack of understanding of how the party and government work. The existing framework is still based on the literature in the 1980s and 1990s, such as fragmented authoritarianism and the “selectorate model.” This year, the topic is about China’s political and economic influence around the world. Furthermore, we still don’t have a good understanding of how economic elites integrate into the society, why and how the party is so resilient, the origins of a strong party, and also how the state manages the changing state-society relations, as well as how China upgrades the economic system without upsetting Chinese population.
What is the question?
XBL: Maybe. You should look at the world and asking a good question is extremely difficult. It requires our understanding of what is going on in the world and what has been said and done in the literature. Even for scholars like me who have many publications, I am always thinking and rethinking theoretical questions. Schumpeter, a great economist, offers us many good conceptions and asks good questions. Of course, students want to get jobs and they tend to focus on short-term goals. but good institutions value studies focusing on good questions. Besides methodological training, students should be thinking about how they can ask interesting questions.
Every research question is like a raw diamond. To make it shine like a real diamond, you need to cut it from different angles. Some scholars just collect new data and emulate what others have done. We don’t talk enough about the right questions to ask. Sometimes, after working on a certain topic for a while, you are allowed to let go of it if you find out it is not the question to ask. This is when advisors become important. Advisors should help students select good questions.
For graduate students, we should improve our ability to ask questions. Do you have any guidance on how to improve it?
XBL: No one just wakes up and realizes this is a good question. Discovery in science sometimes is like serendipity while walking into the woods. Sometimes, you are lucky to find your tree and other times the search is fruitless. It involves a lot of trials and errors. You need to keep trying.
Do you think it is getting more difficult to collect data in China?
XBL: Yes and no. People always say China is a different environment. You can always find new ways of getting data like archives and et cetera. Of course, pulling off public opinion surveys is challenging in today’s political environments. You can also talk to local Chinese and they can point you to some data. Be creative. Don’t just sit in front of your desk and read existing literature, and obtain data constructed by others.
Do you think interviews are important?
XBL: It depends on the topic. Certain questions don’t need interviews. For example, if you are studying elite politics, then reading memoirs may be another way, because accessing political elites is extremely difficult. It is also difficult to interview the friends and families of elites. If you are studying village election, you need to get your feet wet by talking to villagers.
What difficulties to scholars studying Chinese politics outside China face?
XBL: We have this identification revolution that helps us to identify causal effects. But I start to see people are becoming too narrow. We see the tree but not the forest. I am not saying people can understand the entire forest, that would be too hard. I hope scholars can at least be aware of the existence of other trees and understand how their own trees are related to one another. Not seeing the forest will limit our ability to understand Chinese politics.
Is it because graduate students have shorter time horizons?
XBL: Maybe. But another factor is that certain papers are more likely to get published. And students may overclaim what they have achieved.