New Book and April 5 Conference Trace China's Political Development, Expand Academic Legacy of Michel Oksenberg

President Jimmy Carter and Mchel Oksenberg in China



On April 5th, 2018, the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center will hold the annual Oksenberg Conference, which honors the legacy of Professor Michel Oksenberg. A renowned China scholar and senior fellow at Shorenstein APARC, Professor Oksenberg served as a key member of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, guiding the United States towards normalized relations with China and consistently urging that the U.S. engage with Asia in a more considered manner.

This year, the conference is organized around the publication of Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County. Zouping, a county in Shandong province, was first opened to Western researchers in 1984 through the efforts of Michel Oksenberg. The book is based upon the research notes he left behind, supplemented by new research by his own students and their students.

Jean Oi, director of the China Program at APARC and co-editor of Zouping Revisited, sat down to discuss the conference, the book, as well as her mentor and colleague Michel “Mike” Oksenberg.

This book is going to be the focal point for the Oksenberg Conference this year. What can we expect to hear there?

The Oksenberg Conference is our biggest annual event. This year, we have a great opportunity to discuss not only the actual changes that have occurred in China, but to also talk about how China research itself has changed.

Many younger researchers take for granted the ability to get concrete information about China.  But the opening of China fieldwork and actually interviewing the political actors at different levels of the system was not a given.  A lot of scholars are now caught up by big data sets, but fieldwork allow us to understand the context in which all this information comes out of.

When Mike’s team was thinking about establishing a research site in Zouping, they needed to first run some reconnaissance. They had to determine if this was a real window onto rural China; they didn't want a Potemkin village.

The villages in the county had never hosted foreigners. There was no place for the researchers to live. One of the first researchers lived in the office of the Party Secretary! And, for his showers, he went into the closed courtyard where villagers standing on ladders poured buckets of water over him. I don’t want to call it primitive, but they were clearly not set up for us.

Tell us a little about how you came to be involved in the Zouping research project.

I became involved because I was a doctoral student of Michel Oksenberg, one of the “Michigan Mafia”, as many of us China Specialists trained by Mike at the University of Michigan are known. But the competition to do reserach there was a national one and we had scholars from around the country in the project.

By the time the project started in the late 1980s, I was already teaching and Mike and I worked together in Zouping for a number of years--we sometimes even did interviews together. Amazingly enough, later, I ended up at Stanford as a faculty member alongside Mike.

But in 2000, I got a phone call from Mike, telling me he had cancer and that his time was short. He was clearly very upset, and so was I when I heard the news. But then Mike said, “You have to finish the Zouping volume for me. The one thing I really regret is not finishing this research project.” That's a request you can't turn down.

This volume, Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County, with contributions by two generations of Mike’s students, fulfills our promise to him.

This is the second volume that collects research about Zouping county. Why should Americans be interested in Zouping?

Zouping County was the first site that opened for American scholars to do field research in China. Prior to the opening of Zouping, China was still mostly closed to foreigners. Zouping allowed us to go inside the system, see how things are done, talk to the people doing them, and see how all that changes over time and what the impact of those change are—things we could never do from the outside. For instance, everybody knows there's been economic change in China. But what have been the political consequences for governance? In other words, how does Zouping county’s government and the Party adapt to all this economic change?

It is often said that China’s political system never changed, and it's true; if you just look at the organization charts, then the system appears to have never changed. But conducting long-term research in Zouping allowed us to see how the government actually works, and what we found was that, while from the outside the organization might still look the same, the way it actually operated was vastly different. Institutions have adapted inside—in the substance, in the procedures.

Being able to discover and understand all of this takes going back to the same county, going in and interviewing people, continuously probing for the answers to our questions. Zouping gives us the ability to do that, and that is why it is so important.

The book looks often at how economic change has impacted governance. I’d like to turn that equation around and ask about President Xi. What impact has his presidency had on Zouping county?

The changes that have been coming out of China from the latest Congress meetings are significant and far reaching. It will take some time to digest all of them.  But looking at the anti-corruption campaign that has been ongoing for 5 years, I hear from a lot of people that local officials are so scared that they are essentially sitting on their hands, rather than risk getting caught for doing something wrong. This fear is highly problematic, given that local officials have been the driving force behind the growth that China has experienced recently.

Last year, for its tenth anniversary, the China Program held a conference contemplating the impact of these changes. We’re working on a volume that collects the research presented at that conference; but as always, I think I still need to go back to Zouping to really understand the impact of the many changes that have just been announced in China!

In closing, I’d like to circle back to Michel Oksenberg. What do you believe Mike would think of the book?

I actually think he would like it. Mike was interested in how things worked, how things changed, how people and organizations coped.  He has a famous article about how “cadres got along and ahead."

And so, I think we probed deeply enough, dug out a lot of "unobvious" material, and figured out how China’s institutions actually operate and change. That's what Mike always wanted us to do. So, in that sense, I think he would say we’ve succeeded.


Register to attend the Oksenberg Conference. Registration is still open, but seats are filling fast.