China Program Convenes Leading Scholars to Discuss the Field of Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping and to Chart Its Future

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Three of the presenters during the first plenary session: Professors Mary Gallagher, University of Michigan; Melanie Manion, Duke University; and Jean Oi, Stanford University
(From left to right): Three of the presenters during the first plenary session: Professors Mary Gallagher, University of Michigan; Melanie Manion, Duke University; and Jean Oi, Stanford University
Photo credit: 
Andrea Brown, APARC

(From left to right): Three of the presenters during the first plenary session: Professors Mary Gallagher, University of Michigan; Melanie Manion, Duke University; and Jean Oi, Stanford University

In the nearly seven years since assuming the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping has had far-ranging impact on the country’s policies at home and abroad. From his anti-corruption campaign and tightening restrictions on civil society to championing the Belt and Road initiative and abolishing China’s presidential term limits, Xi is transforming the Chinese state and its place on the global stage.

Among the cutting-edge topics that China scholars are beginning to explore is Xi’s impact on Chinese politics and its concomitant influence on what and how scholars study Chinese politics. Last December, the China Program at Shorenstein APARC hosted a conference that drew preeminent scholars of Chinese politics and comparative politics primarily from across the United States and Canada, where they gathered to assess the state of the discipline, and where the field might go next.

Too Big for One Room

The conference traces its origins to a prior gathering at the American Political Science Association (APSA). The number of attendees at that meeting outpaced any room upgrade APSA could provide. “We were impressed by the number of people studying Chinese politics,” said the China Program Director Jean Oi . “It was apparent to many of us who attended that meeting that it was time we convened a separate event with leaders in the field.”

The need to bring together the multiple generations of scholars of Chinese politics was also clear. “Younger scholars today are so much more well-equipped with various sophisticated methodologies such as machine learning and web scraping,” noted Oi. “We decided it would be useful to gather those doing various types of research, quantitative and qualitative, to think about what we don’t know about Chinese politics but would like to know; and how possibly we might go about doing that research. Our goal for this conference was to try to identify collectively some of those questions for the study of Chinese politics and how our research might contribute to the broader field of comparative politics.” The first gathering of Chinese politics scholars took place at Harvard in December 2017.

‘Burning Questions’ Light Up Second Gathering

(From left to right): Stanford Professors Jean Oi (chair), Lisa Blaydes, Beatriz Magaloni (partially hidden), Michael McFaul, and Barry Weingast during the conference plenary session with comparative politics scholars

That first conference at Harvard reinforced the utility of inter-dialog and helped organizers secure a grant from APSA, which along with support from from FSI and Shorenstein APARC facilitated the second gathering, this time at Stanford. To ensure that the sessions allowed for maximum participant engagement, attendees were assigned into seven working groups. In the months preceding the conference, each group prepared a memo identifying the key questions in the field of Chinese politics, the ways to addressing these questions, and the synergies between Chinese politics and comparative politics .

“The State of the Field in Chinese Politics” conference opened with presentations by the seven small group leaders to a plenary session, followed by discussion of the various burning questions identified by the participants. Unsurprisingly, one prominent item across many of the memos was the oversized impact of Xi on China. Other areas of interest included “elite politics,” the relationship between newfound billionaires and the party, the renewed role of state-owned enterprises in the economy, and the current status of relationships between the private sector, the Party, and the state

Several groups also expressed their desire to learn more about the internal workings of the Party, specifically the adaptation of political institutions over time. While observers often point out that China’s political institutions have changed little compared to its economic institutions, scholars have also found that, in fact, the changes within China’s governmental organizations have been subtle yet profound. But how can we determine when an organizational structure changes the ways in which it operates, and who decides? The field of Chinese politics remains uncertain about these questions.

On the second day, conference attendees were joined by several Stanford scholars of comparative politics, including FSI Director Mike McFaul and FSI Senior Fellows Lisa BlaydesBeatriz Magaloni and Barry Weingast, who responded to the group memos. Breakout discussions of methodology followed.

Keeping the Fire Going

(From left to right): Professors Kellee Tsai, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Jean Oi, Stanford University; Mary Gallagher, University of Michigan; and Margaret Pearson, University of Maryland confer with one another

The conference concluded with a plenary session that focused on the questions "Where are we now?” and “Where do we go next?" One conclusion from the closing was an acknowledgment of the need to more fully consider China in the context of its interactions with other countries in the region as well as globally. “I think that ‘China in the Global Context’ may very well be the theme of our next conference,” said Oi.

A third conference is tentatively scheduled for December 2019. The five partners behind the series—Stanford University, Harvard University, Duke University, MIT, and the University of Michigan—are currently seeking outside funding to keep this effort going. The hope is that the next meeting will be at Duke University.