Yiqing Xu, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Stanford University

Interviewer: Peng Peng

How did you get interested in studying Chinese politics?

YQX:  In general, I think a lot of people are interested in politics, particular politics in our country. Chinese are not exceptions. As a Chinese, it is not unnatural for me to be interested in Chinese politics. In terms of how I started to think about studying political science in the United States, there is some luck and some coincidence. While I was a graduate student at Peking University, I started working on an empirical project on village elections in China. I always knew that I wanted to pursue doctoral studies and do research in social science. At that point, an opportunity presented itself and I happened to have the chance to study politics in the U.S. I applied to both economics and political science and got offers in both fields. My advisor at Beida, Professor Yao Yang said to me, that ina few decades, it is politics (and the interaction between economics and politics) that would matter the most.

Why did  you come to the US to study Chinese politics?

YQX: Two reasons. Part of it is training. To date, research methods are more rigorously taught at American institutions than in their Chinese counterparts. The word “discipline” also means “constraints.” I buy into the paradigm of understanding politics with the help of models and data. Another reason is, of course, academic freedom. In China, many Chinese scholars study IR or public administration and fewer of them study comparative politics.

Are there difficulties studying Chinese politics outside China?

YQX: I think there are two layers of answers to that question. One is to what extent we have the intuition about China. The second layer is whether you’re gonna lose touch with what is going on within China when you spend more years abroad. Scholars who have living experiences in China do enjoy some advantages of having the right intuition. One of my advisors is an American and he told me that, naturally, I’ll have a better instinct about Chinese politics than American politics. This is true. The second is a real challenge. If you are not immersed in the environment, you lose touch with Chinese people from different walks of life. Our social science research is about capturing importance in the society. Social reality is complex and always driven by an uncountable number of variables. Why are you picking up these variables but not others? Because you think their relationships are important. Scholars can derive these relationships from their living experiences or reading others’ work, but instincts from living experiences are important.

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

YQX: Someone once told me in 10 years, you won’t have the need to justify why you study Chinese politics. China and America are themselves important countries. We are actually quite blessed because the international community wants to understand or at least know more about China. It means our work could have some policy implications, potentially. But I do want to say that the lessons we draw from studying Chinese politics can be generalized to other cases. In particular, how does China sustains a certain level (some people argue, relatively high level) of quality of governance in the absence of electoral competitions? What are the perils and challenges? What does it mean to the world and the Chinese society when the state is getting stronger and equipped with very sophisticated technologies of social control and surveillance?

Is this the reason why your research pays attention to the role of information in shaping the interaction between citizen and the government?

YQX: I am in the process of trying to figure out my research agenda. I’m interested in a lot of things. For example, in one project, I study elite project; in another, I study public opinion. Currently, I am now more interested in how people’s ideas, attitudes and identity are formed, and their relevance on governance.

Did you become aware of the impact of your early education on your identity after you came to the US?

YQX: Not just my early years of education, but those years at Fudan and Beida have a large impact on me. Many people formed their worldviews when they are in college. So do I. I was lucky that I interacted with people who held a vastly diverse views about China and the world while I was in college and met several extremely good teachers.

What are the interesting research avenues that are coming up in China field?

YQX: I think the interests on political selection will remain and network analysis will be increasingly popular. Text analysis will be popular, too. Researchers could also use data analysis to analyze documents and speeches of politicians. Of course, more work on public opinion will show up simply because the data are easier to collect, relatively speaking. Political control and repression will be another important research avenue primarily because of interest from the United States. These are my predictions, not necessarily my recommendation. You gotta do what really interests you and, sometimes, what is opposite of the “trend” to stand out (to quote Professor Emerson Niou).

So you think the data is not an issue?

YQX: It is complicated. There are more controls and regulations. For example, household survey data are more difficult to gather. But there are also more data that are publicly available data, e.g. on income, health care, wealth, firms, taxation, etc. Such data are getting more and more abundant.

 So the future is promising for us?

YQX: It depends on what you study. We should think outside of the box and often you need to collect data by ourselves. The reason is very simple: there is an increasing supply of talents in our field. This is a good thing for our field, but of course, it also means a fiercer competition in the next couple of years in the job market.