Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer Field Research 2012: Initial Interviews in Beijing

During the last week of my trip to Beijing, I had the chance to conduct a few actual interviews on the subject of my research: Chinese public opinion and its influence on the country's foreign policy. These were the first formal interviews I arranged in China and an invaluable experience as I progress with my dissertation research.

I wrote earlier about visiting Nankai University in Tianjin and meeting with Prof. Liu Feng. While there I also talked at some length with his colleague, Prof. Huang Haitao, and I got the name of another professor at Tsinghua University back in Beijing, Dr. Sun Xuefeng. So, I arranged a meeting with Prof. Sun and made my way up to Tsinghua for a conversation two days before my flight back to the US.

It was nice to return to Tsinghua, a place where I'd studied at the IUP program in 2008-2009. The campus is very pretty in the summer, with a mix of modern glass structures, older Communist-era construction, and a core of early 20th-century buildings done by an American architect in the style of US state universities, including the University of Illinois. There are also canals and gardens running through the campus that were part of the Qing-dynasty palace complex in northwest Beijing which bequethed some of its natural beauty to both Tsinghua and to Peking University across the street. I made my way up to a building that I had walked past many times but never been inside, where the international relations department is located.

Prof. Sun was very welcoming, and we had a good discussion on recent events in US-China relations and Chinese foreign policy. He reiterated what I had heard from some other experts regarding the internet in China: that Chinese leaders are attaching a lot of importance to this form of expression and making sure that it doesn't get out of hand. In fact, he thought this was an important enough factor that I might consider it as a major angle for my dissertation project. Prof. Sun also emphasized two main factors in the tensions between China and its neighbors between 2009-2011. First, he felt that the Chinese government hasn't done enough to match its economic cooperation with military or security reassurance. Second, we spoke about the fear of abandonment by the US that other countries in the region are currently feeling given US domestic difficulties and China's rapid rise. Finally, Prof. Sun offered a couple interesting views on the role of nationalism and public opinion in Chinese foreign policy. He downplayed the possibility or influence of a foreign policy "trap," in which the government is said to stoke nationalism for domestic benefit but then be constrained by it in international affairs. Simultaneously, he thinks the CCP is paying more attention to nationalism than in previous decades. All of these topics were right up my alley and made for a very productive conversation.

After finishing that meeting, Prof. Sun took me across the hall to meet one of his colleagues: Professor Zheng Chuanjie, also of the IR department. As it turned out, Prof. Zheng's specialty is public opinion and foreign affairs, so the hour I spent talking with his was also very well spent. We talked at length about nationalist demonstrations, how well the Chinese government is able to understand and measure public opinion, and a variety of other issues. Prof. Zheng also introduced me to some new methodologies that I hadn't considered before for my own research, which was much appreciated. At the end, I even had an offer to come back to the Tsinghua IR department for my field research in 2013!

All in all, this short visit to Tsinghua was easily the most productive of my discussions during my research trip though by no means my only chance to talk with Chinese experts. During this trip, I learned a great deal and received quite a bit of good advice regarding my eventual dissertation, as well as enjoying my time in Beijing connecting with other students and faculty from GWU or past visits. I also gained some really valuable experience in conducting interviews that I know will serve me well in the future. The most fascinating part to me is simply meeting people with radically different perspectives on the world...and China has no shortage of such people!

As always, many thanks to the Sigur Center for this opportunity. And for any other students hoping to do research in Asia next summert, take advantage of the resources our school has to offer! I'm very glad that I did.

Thanks for reading and zaijian!

Jackson Woods
Summer Field Research Fellow 2012
Ph.D. Candidate, Political Science

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