Interviewer: Zeren Li
What made you interested in studying Chinese politics?
YHW: I was assigned to the political science major in college. I applied for history but didn’t get in (my gaokao score was not high enough). I hated political science during the first 3 years in college. In my senior year, I participated in a survey project led by Professor Shen Mingming, who directed the Research Center for Contemporary China at Peking University. Our team went to Hebei, conducting a pilot study. Then I went by myself to two provinces — Jiangsu and Henan — to recruit my own teams and knock on people’s doors. The survey was on people’s legal experiences, which really opened my eyes because I was born and raised in Beijing and never went to rural China.
These two trips to rural Jiangsu and Henan changed my view about China. There’s another side of China that I never saw. The peasants told me stories about themselves, their relatives, and their neighbors going to the local government, the petition office, and the court. Some of them couldn’t get their problems solved after ten years of litigation. I realized politics could change people’s lives. That experience made me interested in studying politics.
Did this experience impact your choice of dissertation topic?
YHW: Exactly. The field experience gave me the inspiration. When I started graduate school and thought about dissertation topics, there were several things I was interested in, but I settled down on this one because of my early exposure.
The second question is about the future. What interesting research avenues do you see coming up in Chinese politics?
YHW: In the past several decades the Chinese politics field has made great progress on two topics, one is political selection, especially that of local officials. We now know a lot about them: their incentives, behaviors, what they want, and what they don’t want. The other one is public opinion. With advances in survey research since the 1980s, we now know a lot about what people think and how they behave.
One avenue of research I want to see more in the future is studies on firms. Firms are important actors in politics and the economy. As political scientists we don’t care about firms; we have left the research on firms to economists. We study citizens and public officials rather than firms. Yet firms are playing a very important role in China. Thinking about Huawei in current US-China relations. In the last decade, there has been some new research about political connections of firms, firm lobbying, political families’s connections with firms, and how firms are related to corruption, policy making, and foreign relations. I think this is one area that can produce lots of promising research.
Another promising topic is national politics. As China scholars we study one country. We try to leverage subnational variations, so that we can run regressions with a large-N data set. But it’s difficult to make our research accessible for people outside the China field. It could be a fruitful research agenda to focus on national politics, national government, and national-level politicians. We know something about them. But partly because national politics is not transparent, we haven’t made a lot of progress in empirical research. That’s one area we can really do something.
How do you think Chinese politics can contribute to the general literature of comparative political science?
YHW: If you think about the work that has been done in Chinese politics, much is framed as authoritarian politics. However, if you talk to people outside the China field and ask them what makes them excited about China, they usually say two things. One is history. People who study Europe always ask me why the Chinese imperial state declined. They are impressed by China’s advanced bureaucracy and early centralization in the civil service and wonder why China built the modern nation-state so late. There is a political Needham puzzle here: given China’s early bureaucratic development, why didn’t a modern nation-state first emerge in China?
The second thing is the recent rise of China. China had a very strong bureaucratic system early on and was probably the biggest economy in the world for a long time. Then China declined around 17th and 18th century, but came back again recently. Many people want to know how to explain the recent rise of China. That is one of the biggest questions, not only in academia, but also among the general public.
So the million-dollar question is the decline and rise of China. To explain those two questions, we need to go beyond the contemporary era; we need to go back to history; and we need to examine national politics. This historical perspective is very promising because historical China, as a traditional society, was very similar to the developing world today. They are both agrarian, violent, and poor. In addition, China has a 2000-year history with well-documented data. When I read history, I see long-term patterns. However, we haven’t exploited historical patterns because we have been focusing on the last 20 years. We need to take advantage of the deep history of China. Then we can answer those questions raised by people outside the China field.
Speaking of data collection, the next question is about tips for the graduate student who studies Chinese Politics. Do you have any advice for collecting data or doing interviews in China?
YHW: In recent years, the research climate in China has dramatically deteriorated. It’s challenging to do the type of elite interviews that I did in my dissertation research 10 years ago. But another trend in the last five years or so is the flooding of data. New technologies allow us to scrape government websites and the social media. It is important to combine patterns we observe from big data and insights we can obtain from talking to regime insiders, such as officials, judges, and firm managers.
We need to be persistent and creative in field research. Government officials are never open at the beginning, and you need to spend time with them. Now this process may require more time. It takes time to build trust. During one of my field trips, I was trying to talk to a political-legal committee chairman. I was asking about sensitive issues, such as repression and policing. He was not open to me for the first five meetings. At the beginning, he said something that everyone could read from the newspapers. Gradually the relationship became better. In our tenth conversation, he was drinking baijiu with me and telling all the stories that he had encountered over the years and all the tactics he used for repression. Doing interviews takes time. The most important thing is to build trust with your interviewees so that they can be open to you. That’s one lesson I learned from my field work.
Were those interviewees sensitive to your affiliation with the US institutions? How did you introduce yourself? This is also related to our last question, the difficulty of studying Chinese politics for scholars based outside China?
YHW: I see pros and cons. The upside is that some people feel more relaxed after I tell them I study politics in the US, because they feel “Oh, I’ll tell you something, it will be anonymous, and you will go back to the US, and you won’t go to Beijing to report me.” For some people, that’s a reassurance that they will be safe. During the recent tension between the US and China, however, this is no longer the case. It might be tricky to do research in China with a US affiliation.
Practically, you need an introduction letter (介绍信). You need a Chinese affiliation to talk to officials, access archives, and get a library card. But the letter won’t open their mouths. Most officials will ask: “Although you’re an academic, you’re from the big city. If I tell you something, will you report me when you go back?” So, affiliation with a Chinese institution doesn’t necessarily help. The letter will, however, open the door. After you are inside the door, the most important thing is to build the trust.