Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Research on the Mainland: Beijing and Shanghai

Hello from Shanghai! My name is Jackson Woods and I’m a Ph.D. student in political science, conducting summer field research for my dissertation with the help of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.

My research deals with Chinese public opinion online, especially around foreign policy issues. In the midst of my fourth week here in China, I look back and find myself amazed at how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time. My first twenty-two days were spent in Beijing, and during that time I got to conduct nearly twenty-five interviews with experts ranging from professors at big-name universities to founders of well-known media publications to notable independent voices who’ve found themselves challenging the state. As important as all the other data is for my research – news articles and reports, millions of social media postings, and more – there’s nothing like hearing about these issues straight from those involved in China’s domestic foreign policy debates.

Getting to do this research involved a lot of different pieces that have to fall into place and not a little bit of luck. Mostly, it’s a story of using connections to make connections. For example, a friend who I met on a previous trip to Beijing with my committee chair introduced me to a professor in his department at Tsinghua University on my second day here. In the middle of our conversation, that professor sent me the WeChat contact information for a researcher at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences. (Note that WeChat is an absolutely essential smartphone app in China which everybody uses to the complete exclusion of texting, phone, etc.) After accepting my friend request on WeChat, that researcher in turn talked to her institute head, which meant that two weeks later I found myself at lunch with the research institute staff and a visiting scholar from Taiwan, talking with another expert who’s written multiple books about online opinion in China! Flexibility and follow-up are the key phrases for this kind of work.

Renmin University - site of a few interviews during my stay in Beijing

More broadly, it's great to be back in China. I've lived in Beijing for two years (2008-2009 and 2013-2014) and, while it will never really feel "like home," it's certainly familiar. Between hitting all of my culinary favorites and catching up with friends working in the city, I got to enjoy an unprecedentedly beautiful couple of weeks. Anyone who has read about China probably knows about the terrible air pollution, but with a few exceptions we had nearly three weeks of blue skies during my visit. The city felt entirely different, as residents walked down the street pointing their camera phones at the sky and fluffy blue clouds floated over familiar buildings that I'm more used to seeing shrouded in grayish-brown haze. I don't know if this was the result of policy or just a string of great luck, but I'm not complaining either way.

The view from my window in the Liudaokou neighborhood.

A more typical view on a previous visit to Beijing.
After keeping busy in Beijing, I’m now in Shanghai attending a conference at Shanghai Jiaotong University with scholars from both the US and China presenting their latest research, and next week I’ll be heading to Hong Kong. Already I've made a lot of useful connections with professors on both sides of the Pacific, which is nearly as valuable as the interviews. I also enjoy the contrast between Beijing and Shanghai quite a bit – where Beijing carries the weight of hundreds of years as China’s capital under a modern veneer, Shanghai feels like a true “world city.” I like them both in their own way, and I had a great time in Beijing, but it's cool to see the "leading edge" of the PRC. Of course, there’ve been a lot of cool experiences besides just work and nice weather, but those will have to wait for the next post(s). Until then!

Myself, my adviser Prof. Bruce Dickson, and Chunhua Chen, another GWU political science Ph.D. student who's currently doing field research in Beijing for the entire year. On the campus of Peking University.

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