- Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies
No other country of China's importance has changed as rapidly in the last three decades in terms of the study of politics. In the early 1980s, archives began to open, local newspapers gained some autonomy, and physical access to China expanded. Since then, the study of China's politics (and society generally) has rapidly converged on that of the study of other developing countries. As Kenneth Lieberthal notes in his concluding chapter to this excellent new volume: "China has gone from being a basically inaccessible, very low information society to being a relatively accessible, high information society" (p. 273).
The 2006 edited volume Doing Fieldwork in China (University of Hawai'i Press) was one of the first attempts to distill lessons from the new methodological challenges of doing research on China's politics and society. Its main conclusion was that many of the constraints of doing fieldwork had not changed much and would likely remain. In this new volume, a distinguished set of contributors focus more narrowly on the study of politics. The similar yet still surprising conclusion is that studying China's politics has actually become more difficult.
Many of the challenges presented here are not new to China but merely new to scholars because they are now able to work in China. Local collaborations (discussed in the chapters here on survey research by Melanie Manion and Bruce Dickson), ethical issues in a repressive state (discussed by Lily Tsai), the interpretation of state propaganda (Xi Chen), the assurance of stable meanings in surveys, and the problem of China's size have all loomed larger as the ability to conduct new forms of research has expanded.
Other challenges, however, are new to China. The information explosion of the last decade has rendered the study of even the narrowest topic subject to information overload, as Daniela Stockman, Allen Carlson, and Hong Duan show in their studies of media and Internet sources. This phenomenon is forcing scholars to learn new data analysis tools to understand online content and networks. Elite politics, meanwhile, has transformed fundamentally as a result of [End Page 215] higher education and increased social intermixing among China's political elites. As a result, simple biographical approaches to the Central Committee, such as that discussed here in a chapter by Shih, Shan, and Liu, may be less useful in predicting preferences and alignments, perhaps one reason why their discussion of its applications is limited to the 1970s and 1980s.
What does it all mean?
The most obvious implication, and the main theme of this book, is that scholars increasingly have to be more conscious of the social scientific rigor of their claims. The process of data collection and literature review requires more effort and resources. The need to justify research design decisions is more pressing than ever before given the availability of alternative interpretations. Most important, the theoretical and comparative frameworks used to interpret the results need to be more robust. In short, scholars of China's politics are expected to behave pretty much like other political scientists in the discipline these days.
There are implicit debates here among the authors on such issues as quantitative versus qualitative approaches, primary versus secondary data, and site-intensive versus nationally representative cases. However, the deeper consensus is that the bar for what constitutes excellent research using any of these approaches has been raised. As Peter Hays Gries notes in his chapter on experimental methods, "The list of challenges, frankly, is humbling. It is not easy to do this type of research. Mastering psychological and international relations theories, experimental and survey designs, psychometrics, and statistical analysis are just the beginning" (p. 87).
This work has a secondary and related theme, although one that is more evident in the omission. It is the implicit consensus that there is no need for China specialists to engage in serious and sustained study of other countries in order...