Stanford scholars track China’s profound political and economic transformation

Stanford scholars provide insight into the profound changes in China’s political institutions through decades of fieldwork in Zouping county, the first site to open to Western researchers. They show how a complex economy has flourished in an authoritarian regime.

Over the past 30 years, China has undergone such rapid economic growth that it is now the world’s second largest economy and the globe’s biggest exporter.

portrait of political science professor Jean Oi

Political scientist Jean Oi is co-editor of a new book that looks at China’s profound political and economic transformation through the lens of Zouping county, a former rural community that has become an urban hub with a thriving commercial economy. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Encapsulating the country’s economic change is Zouping county, an area south of Beijing, that has transformed from a rural, agricultural area into an urban hub with a thriving commercial economy.

Since the 1980s, scholars including Stanford’s Jean Oi have been studying the profound economic transformation in the region. Through this, they’ve learned how change comes about in a seemingly static one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party – findings that have helped Western scholars and policymakers understand and respond to economic trends.

“Zouping provides a rare and invaluable base line to understand how exactly the county has changed, both economically and politically,” said Oi, a professor of political science. Oi also serves as director of the China Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC).

Scholars gained access to Zouping county thanks to an agreement brokered in 1979 by the late Stanford political scientist Michel Oksenberg – who at the time was a professor at the University of Michigan serving the White House National Security Council – that gave the U.S. a field post for researchers. Zouping became the first site open to Western researchers since communist rule began in the 1950s. Zouping was selected because it was an ordinary example of rural China. But over the years, the county proved anything but.

Oksenberg helped document the county’s extraordinary growth but he was never able to complete his research project. In 2001, Oksenberg died at age 62 from complications related to cancer.

Now, Oi, who had been working with Oksenberg in Zouping since 1988, is co-editor of Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County, a new book that culminates the research Oksenberg started, with new insights into how the country has undergone such dramatic change.

Oi talked with Stanford News Service about Zouping and what it tells us about China and international relations.

 

What are some common misunderstandings about the Chinese economy and political system? How does Zouping challenge those preconceptions?

One of the most common misunderstandings about China is that there has been little political change. Yes, it is still a one-party state rule and many core institutions of governance are left over from the pre-reform period, when China had a centrally planned economy. It is correct that there has been very limited political reform, but there has been significant change.

Our research in Zouping challenges this misconception. This volume describes the ad hoc bureaucratic adaptations and accommodations that change the operation, if not the organizational form, of government institutions. It is a story of how state agencies, faced with rapid and far-reaching economic changes that create new demands and challenges, are adapting, sometimes in a creative and entrepreneurial fashion, in the way they carry out their functions and exercise their authority. But the ongoing political change is masked by outward continuity in formal organization.

 

On the surface, private enterprise seems to be at odds with communist values. How has the Chinese economy grown to be the second largest in the world without political reform?

As I suggested above, the degree of political change is deceptive.

There has not been a lot of political reform in China, but there has been change. The ability to do in-depth fieldwork over time allowed us to answer the puzzle of how a county government was able to govern with the dramatic economic changes that have occurred. How can it be that a county, using what appears to be unchanged political institutions, has so far seemed capable of governing a vastly more complex market economy that has a much more heterogeneous and rapidly changing labor force? This gets at the larger questions of what in political science is called authoritarian resilience.

Our work goes inside the existing core of the system. It looks inside existing institutions of local government to see if and how they evolve over time to changed economic and political contexts. It examines how a local government has been able to govern within a radically changed economic and political environment, while it remains constrained within a pre-existing Leninist structure. The overall argument of the volume is that old organizational structures in fact have come to operate in surprising new ways. Drawing on fieldwork at the lowest levels of the administrative bureaucracy in one Chinese county, we think our volume offers new insights into the resilience of this one-party system.

 

What makes Zouping a relevant case study today?

But the ever-increasing GDP numbers masked important structural changes within the county. The experience of this county shows that development is neither linear nor consistent within a county. We found a rather unexpected change of fortune. The development of Zouping took some unexpected turns since researchers first arrived in the late 1980s. The beginning of trends, such as the shift to the private sector, were already clear by the late 1990s, but few would have predicted the final outcome. Moreover, as a consequence of changes in development in different parts of the county, there are a number of surprising changes in the economic fortune of different townships.

 

What are the policy implications to emerge from research in Zouping county?

This is hard to know, but I think it allowed influential China scholars such as Michel Oksenberg, who was serving on the staff of the White House National Security Council at the time of diplomatic normalization in 1979, to get an in-depth understanding of China beyond Beijing. Since then Zouping has provided a window on the changes that have been taking place at the local level. We have carried on that tradition and I hope that it can continue because it sheds light on the challenges that China faces in governance. Such an understanding provides a more nuanced vision of the constraints on policymaking and implementation, even for a strong one-party state as exists in China.

 

Jean C. Oi is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Politics, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, director of the China Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and the Lee Shau Kee Director, Stanford Center at Peking University.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: mdewitte@stanford.edu

Noa Ronkin, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC): noa.ronkin@stanford.edu