Faculty Spotlight: Xueguang Zhou

Sociologist Xueguang Zhou is no stranger to Stanford. He studied here as a doctoral student and returned to campus in 2006. He is now the Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Zhou says it is a joy to be teaching in the very place he himself was intellectually trained. Recently, he spoke with the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center about his route to the Farm and his research focus on China’s urbanization and bureaucracy. 

How did you come to Stanford and the Center?

I completed my PhD in sociology at Stanford so it was a very easy and natural decision to come back as a professor. After graduating, I went to Cornell University and Duke University as well as spending two years in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, but I always missed the exciting intellectual environment at Stanford. I have a lot of admiration for the faculty and research that takes place here. In 2006, the sociology department and Shorenstein APARC recruited me. I began to focus on China as a major research area after I had completed my Ph.D. My dissertation was actually centered on American universities. My joint appointment as a professor and as a senior fellow at Shorenstein APARC has been very complimentary. I teach in my trained area of sociology and explore my substantive interests in Chinese bureaucracy. I combine my teaching and research nicely to bridge the two sides. Additionally, this year, I will teach a summer graduate seminar at Stanford Center at Peking University.

What are the most pressing issues of China’s urbanization?

Urbanization processes in China have been underway for the last 10-20 years, in particular, the government is pushing very hard to accelerate this process. Suddenly, people have been pushed from rural to urban areas. Many are being forced to abandon their land and assume a new life away from their farming activities. This process raises many important questions, and is a main area of what I study. Chinese culture (way of life, organization, problem solving) is heavily drawn from rural tradition. Inherently urbanization has created tensions between tradition and the modern idea of Chinese society. Now we see a lot of contentious politics in China. Resistance, revolt and social movements are in part caused by this disruption of the social norms and tradition that had historically held the Chinese society together. Patterns of interaction between social groups have changed. So, what does this mean for society? And further to that, what is the new governance structure that emerges out of this? In rural China, governance in the past was based on kinship and local institutions, but the future is unclear. We need to research and understand the emergent governance structure in China. 

What impact has recent bureaucratic restructuring had on Chinese society? 

Right now, it is hard to say what effects the recent changes put forth at the Third Plenum will have on society. It is too soon to see any major effects on the long-term trend. My research focuses on the fundamental basis of Chinese structures and bureaucracies. Over the past two years, I have pursued analyzing Chinese bureaucracy through a historical lens. If we take a step back and observe these recent policy shifts in a greater timeline, we can see that local-level fluctuations are only temporary phenomena. For example, China’s new leadership recently launched a huge anti-corruption campaign. As a result, people in local-level bureaucracies have suddenly become much more careful about their behavior. But, how long will this behavior last? It is unlikely to last for very long. If we look at it from a longer perspective, we can see clear policy rhythms between centralization and decentralization over time. There may be short-term policy efforts to strengthen the central authority, but systematic institutional shifts are less likely.

Can you tell us about your methods and approach to your research on Chinese personnel structures?

I analyze archival data and conduct fieldwork in China to understand changes in bureaucracy. A primary way I conduct my fieldwork is participatory observations in a township-level government in China. When I visit this township government, I stay in a guestroom in the government building, and interact with local officials on a daily basis, observe their work and eat meals with them. Basically, I get to know them, their views and way of life. I also go to the nearby villages to interact with locals to gather their opinions about bureaucracy and the policy implementation processes. I also meet with other Chinese colleagues who conduct research on government behaviors, and we share and discuss our observations. Often times, they take me to different localities to visit government bureaus and to chat with local officials. All of these interactions give me great opportunities to learn about the Chinese bureaucracy. Close observations are key for me to identifying current issues in governance and bureaucratic structures, which I then compare to the historical legacy. This line of research is also connected to a project in collaboration with graduate students, analyzing the flow of bureaucrats in an entire province using public data. 

Tell us something we don’t know about you.

One aspect of my personal experience that I cherish is that, like many in my generation, I was sent to work in rural China after high school during the Cultural Revolution.  There I became a “team leader” in a village, responsible for organizing collective activities of over 200 villagers (about 50 households) and several hundreds “mu” of farming land, when I was only 17. This experience gave me a much deeper understanding of rural life in China.

The Faculty Spotlight Q&A series highlights a different faculty member at Shorenstein APARC each month giving a personal look at his or her scholarly approaches and outlook on related topics and upcoming activities.