How to understand Chinese politics through data

Society & Culture

The political scientist Yiqing Xu explains his “new-ish” methods for studying the dynamics of politics in China, including ways to map public sentiment and public opinion in authoritarian states.

yiqing xu and china data research
Illustration by Derek Zheng

On this week’s Sinica Podcast, I was delighted to have a discussion with someone doing what I consider to be some of the most interesting and important work on contemporary China in the social sciences.

Yiqing Xu, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, has been working to help other scholars from China who are interested in modern social science methodology to up their game and make great contributions to the field. Longtime listeners to the show may recall that we spoke about some of Yiqing’s work, specifically a paper on China’s ideological landscape that he co-authored with Jennifer Pan while he was still a doctoral student at MIT back in 2015.

In our discussion, we revisited that work and much else that he’s done in the years since, as well as talk about the state of the field in a time not only of new tools and new methods, but also of political difficulties that have been posed by the precipitous deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship.

In his academic work, Yiqing has had a dual focus. On the one hand, he is a methodologist, developing new, or as he modestly says, “new-ish,” methods for social science inquiry. Methods are important to improve in order to make the kinds of causal claims that we hope to be able to make based on our observational data. But his other focus is very much on China. Methodology is something that has generally previously been dominated by Americanists, by people who focus on the United States. Yiqing, along with some of his peers, has been at the forefront of bringing new approaches to social science work that have been developing largely in the United States, but bringing them to bear on China.

Much of this work has looked at areas that have been ignored or even overlooked — things like public opinion in an autocratic state that some scholars have dismissed as either being impossible to actually do or not actually relevant. And we’ll talk about that. He and his peers are making really important contributions to understanding the dynamics of politics in China and, perhaps, of authoritarian states more broadly.

Listen to the episode or read a lightly edited transcript of the podcast below:

Kaiser Kuo: Yiqing, great to have you on the show at last.

Yiqing Xu: It’s such a pleasure, Kaiser.

Kaiser: It’s wonderful. I wish that we could have had the tape recorder running during our conversation over lunch just now. We went out to a Korean place nearby and man, this guy is fascinating. So even if I managed to capture just a tenth of what we were talking about, that would be fantastic. But let’s start with some background about yourself, about your studies at Fudan and Beida, and then later on at MIT, and I guess you’re still affiliated with UCSD, right?

Yiqing: Yes. I’m part of the 21st Century China program. I’m still an affiliated scholar there.

Kaiser: Oh, great, great, great. And you started off as an economist, is that right?

Yiqing: I wouldn’t categorize myself as an economist, but I studied economics for a couple of years — for seven years from college to my master’s program, where I studied at China Center for Economic Research.

Kaiser: That’s with Justin Lin, right?

Yiqing: Yes, I took Justin’s class, I think he makes a very important contribution to bring more economic education to China, but I also studied under Professor Yao Yang.

Kaiser: Oh, right, right, right. That’s fantastic. And how did you make the transition? How did you get interested in political science after your background in economics?

Yiqing: So I was actually working with Yao Yang and Nancy Qian, who’s also a very prominent economist working on the village election question in China — we used data back to the 1980s to study the impact of village election. I was working already for that project, an RA for that project, and later I started to write a paper about it as my master’s thesis. And then Professor Yao and Nancy figured that maybe I can use this thesis to apply for political science programs in the United States. And I did that. I chose to go to MIT as a result.

Kaiser: So before we delve into some of your actual work, I thought actually, we might spend a little time talking about the state of the field, and the debates, specifically, that we know in one way or another have raged for a long time between different approaches to the study of China. I think you’d be a really good person to talk with about this. I think that most people who work on China are aware of this tension between, on the one hand, those who’ve emphasized area studies, a more holistic approach, one that emphasizes inter- or multi-disciplinary approaches and emphasizes things like language study, a good steeping in the humanities, and so forth. On the other hand, you have people who go for the more discipline-centered approach anchored in political science or in economics, or anthropology, or sociology, or what have you, and who says, you should tackle China, from one of these disciplines. Mastering the tools of an individual discipline. And this is something that Kevin O’Brien at UC Berkeley has written about fairly recently.

And then so paralleling that, there’s another debate on the correct level of specificity that you should focus in on. There are some people who say you can’t be too narrow. There’s no such thing, the more narrow, the more limited in time and in geographic focus, the better. And on the other hand, there are people who say no, no, you’ll lose the forest for too much focus on the trees that way.

And I think a third maybe debate is one between people who emphasize a more qualitative approach and a more quantitative approach. And that’s been sharpened, I think, very much in the last few years by advances in data science and in artificial intelligence. So talk about that. I’ve always theorized that there’s kind of a clustering that happens, where you see people who fall on one side of this debate always fall on the same side to the other two debates. So that the people who champion quantitative also want narrower focuses, and also want a discipline focused approach. Whereas people who are area studies tend to go for more qualitative and broader focuses. First of all, I mean, does it cluster that way? You’re a social scientist, and also, how do you feel about that, and where do you feel like you come down? Because you are a quantitative guy, I mean, that’s how I guess most people describe you.

Yiqing: Well, I think you have a very keen eye. I do observe there are different types of work, qualitative, quantitative, and maybe mixed methods. But the way I think about it is not which way is better. I am very much actually in agreement with Kevin’s article recently published.

Kaiser: We’ll put a link to it. [Click here to read Kevin’s article]

Yiqing: I very much agree with Kevin’s article. But the way I think about it is that it’s actually a very interactive approach to me. So what does that mean? So for me, every study is qualitative in essence, and can be combined with quantitative data. It means that, because we have so many variables in our society, the role of social scientists are very different from the role of physical scientists, because we have to extract the important elements from the society to study. There are maybe a million variables that can be measured out there. Why do we focus on these three variables and write a paper about it? And very often to evaluate how important a work is based on the research experience and the consensus of the field. So that, I think in order to get an intuition about the importance of a work, you need to talk to people, you need to understand where the debate is. So without knowing the reality, it’s very difficult for you to even develop research questions. Then the quantitative method to me is more about generalization or confirming what you observed from your qualitative work. People are always suffering from a lot of behavioral biases, like confirmation bias, availability bias, we tend to believe in what we see. But without a proper counterfactual, we don’t know whether that is something really special. So in order to really pin that down, we need to collect data. That’s one thing. Another thing is we get some anecdotes from a few people around us. And there’s a phenomenon called homophily, right? We like to talk to people that are similar to us. We don’t know whether our conclusion with our personal experiences can be extended to a bigger crowd. That’s where data can play a bigger role.

Kaiser: So we’re familiar with homophily, we’re familiar with confirmation biases and availability biases, these are a lot of common weaknesses to the more qualitative approach. Like my knowledge of China is based mostly just on anecdotally, just talking to people.

Yiqing: I don’t try to portray it that way. But I think that to be a really good qualitative scholar, you need a lot of experience. You need to talk to many people. You need to sometimes be a historian to really tease out the important elements of your finding from the noise. But once you have that intuition, you can test that hypothesis you develop in your qualitative work with data. That’s my personal approach. But of course, qualitative scholars, or scholars primarily using qualitative methods can have their own way to do research.

Kaiser: So I mean, I was thinking that there’s familiar failings I think of the qualitative approach. What about the quantitative approach? Would you be able to identify some of the pitfalls, the disadvantages or weaknesses that you see? I mean, a lot of people are moving more toward quantitative approaches — what are they missing?

Yiqing: Of course, there are a lot of lousy, not so good qualitative research papers out there as well. And I would even say that it’s easier to write a not so great paper with qualitative methods, because it’s so tempting. So actually, the phenomena you just describe, I want to guess give you some additional background based on my observations during the past few years. I think it’s a knowledge sociology argument: the entire field of political science is changing because of the introduction of more statistical methods. And because of the infiltration of some concepts from economics. In our daily language, we talk about the principal-agent problem. We talk about information asymmetry. These are concepts developed by economists which are very important and powerful concepts to analyze social problems. And because of the introduction of data analytical methods, and these models based on rational choice models, the entire field of science is converging. And this creates an incentive for young students to invest more in acquiring those data analytical skills and carrying some of the modeling skills from economics, because they find it maybe with those skills, it’s easier for them to find jobs beyond the China field.

Kaiser: Right, you can go get a job at Facebook, right?

Yiqing: Well, some of our grad students actually did find jobs at Facebook and have a pretty happy life right now.

Kaiser: We’ll see for how long.

Yiqing: Because we all have a time allocation problem. We have very limited time. Although most people spend five, six years in grad school, you spend the first two years taking classes and maybe learning how to write code, learning how to analyze data quantitatively, if you pursue that route, and then maybe you spend another year trying to find a topic. You don’t actually have much time left for you to really understand the society that you’re interested in studying. So right now I think that’s the problem, because it’s so tempting to write papers with beautiful data visualization. And it’s easier to communicate with other people with the data for those who have very limited knowledge of the context of your problem. They may think they understand better with the facilitation of data. But that kind of incentive actually makes people spend more time on acquiring those skills instead of understanding the social content. That’s a potential pitfall. And we are on a clock. Most of the PhD students, junior scholars included our pressure to publish papers. These incentives combined, actually push people to write quick papers with data, and maybe some complex method, then conducting interviews or really knowing their problems or trying to find intuitions from their field work.

Kaiser: I think that’s very insightful. That’s really, really well put. I’m curious, as somebody who straddles the world of Chinese scholarship and U.S. scholarship, do you find that there are different research interests that seem to fascinate maybe non-Chinese people who work in the social sciences on China, and people with an ethnic background in China, or people like you who spent the first 20 years of your life in China?

Yiqing: I don’t see it that way. There are scholars like my colleague Jean Oi, or Melanie Manion, who I also see as one of my mentors. They are not Chinese nationals, but they know China very well. They spent tons of time in China doing fieldwork, and also collecting data in both cases actually. Actually, I see a potential problem for young scholars working in China, who have not spent much time in China. So of course, there are constraints:political and now in the pandemic. But because of the current colloquium and the time constraints, we didn’t have much actual experience in China. This may be slightly better for Chinese nationals, but not too much. Just speaking of me, I grew up in Shanghai. I spent most of my time in the cities, or in university and in schools, right? I actually didn’t have too much time to talk to people on the street and in the countryside. I studied rural elections, but I only spent limited time in the countryside. And for students who came to the states for college and pursue a PhD, even though they’re Chinese, I will say they actually — a lot of our problem is that we don’t have a real sense of where the policy debates are, what are people’s struggles, and it is also a challenge for us to find important questions to study. This, of course, also travels to non-Chinese students who want to study China.

Kaiser: That makes a lot of sense, for sure. Let’s start plunging into some of your work that you’ve done over the years and look at some of the papers that I thought were particularly interesting and important. Some of this work deals, as I think I’ve mentioned with ideology, I mean, ideology is a major feature here. So before we get started, maybe let’s offer up an operational definition of what we mean when we’re talking about ideology, because it means something in a Chinese context in an American context, but in this specific social science context, what do we mean?

Yiqing: For sure. Ideology is probably the most confusing term in the social sciences, some people actually make that argument. You can take a critical approach to the term ideology like Karl Marx did. And when you hear “ideology of the CCP” in Western media, it often has a negative connotation: a government or a regime using various methods like censorship propaganda to conceal the truth from the people — it has a connotation like that. So in our work, we very much take a value neutral approach to ideology, which is essentially a belief system or any belief system that are ideas and attitudes with some constraints, some ideas go with other ideas, you tend to agree on these things, you also tend to agree on. So you agree on one thing and then tend to agree on another thing.

Kaiser: They’re not bound logically, you can’t deduce one from the other, but you’re talking about the instance, for example, it happens that most people who are ideologically conservative in the United States believe in limiting a woman’s right to choose an abortion, but also support the death penalty. And these are not logically connected in any meaningful way, but they tend to occur in the same person, that constraint counts, right? That makes them part of an ideology.

Yiqing: There may be a logical underpinning for certain policy preferences, but of course, it’s very much specific to societies.

Kaiser: Right. And in that case, it’s not always obvious. So that’s great. And one of the sources of the work that you’ve done on Chinese ideology is this massive thing called the “Chinese Political Compass [zuòbiaō, 坐标]” data set. And I want to get into what that data is, how it came together, how large of a set it is, the representativeness of the set, how it’s been used, and maybe what’s happened to the set since you did that work six years ago? I know you’ve looked into this issue, and other people have used that set as well. So can you talk about the zuobiao set?

Yiqing: It was actually a pretty funny story behind it. The zuobiao data was released, if I remember correctly, on April Fool’s Day 2014 by a guy whose alias is Muyao. So I was following his social media, and then he said, “I’m going to release this data.” So later, this person became a friend of my person, Muyao, and he compiled 60 questions in 2007. He’s a Beida alumni. And while he was at Beida, he was chatting with people on BBS in Beida, trying to model a model based on the British Political Compass Survey to develop a survey to measure ideology or political preferences of the Chinese public. That was their project in 2007. Then they basically put this set of questions online, just like any psychological survey that you’ve done, you come across online. And over the years, a couple million people filled out that survey. Most of these people from surveys are, not surprisingly, college students, many of them are male actually if you look at data. In 2014, seven years later, because the website was blocked by the Chinese government, so Muyao decided to release the data. So they put the data in the public. And Jennifer and I—

Kaiser: Jenifer Pan, your colleague at Stanford.

Yiqing: We started to analyze the data. So speaking about the representativeness of the data, this is the first time— so we were always interested in studying belief system of the Chinese public, we have some vague ideas by talking to people, but we don’t really know how they look like and what are constraints, whether they’re multiple dimension, things like that. We can talk more about that. So we were very excited when we got hands on this data set. But very quickly, we realized there’s a big problem with the data, which is its representativeness or not even to mention the representativeness, but just how diverse the data are. Most of the respondents who filled out the zuobiao survey are actually college students who mostly are male.

Kaiser: That’s a pity. I mean, I know that you were aware of this as you approached the research, was there a way to clean the data? Was there any way at all to— I know that there are techniques that can be used to extrapolate from that, but if it’s too overwhelmingly from one specific demographic, which seems to be the case, but still, it doesn’t render it meaningless. I would say, it gives a very good profile of an important segment of Chinese society, right?

Yiqing: We did a little bit of that because the data is massive. You still have a couple thousand people who are older who have lower education, who are female. So we can do some re-weighting to make the data look more balanced, then it actually is. And we did down in the paper. But of course, you can only do as much as the data allows you to do.

Kaiser: Right, right. Right. So I know you — also Jason Wu, who’s now at Indiana University, and he was at UCSD — you’ve talked about categories that we would tend to want to extract — like left and right — and whether they’re politically meaningful at all. Do they have any meaning in the Chinese context? Because we were talking, we were chatting earlier, and you were saying how, for Americans, most people are able to self identify their political convictions as being either left or right. And while people in China can answer specific policy position questions, it still doesn’t map onto something that is either left or right, even though these concepts are used in political discourse in China. How does that work? Why is that mapping impossible or more difficult?

Yiqing: So first of all, I’m very glad that you mentioned Jason’s work who also made a lot of contributions to the study of Chinese ideology. We also talked about collaboration as well. So to answer your question, I think it’s actually not surprising to me that most Chinese that we surveyed — and also Jason surveyed — do not have a symbolic understanding of ideology. What does that mean? It means if you ask them to place themselves on a left-right spectrum, most people would put themselves as “neutral” or “I don’t know.” 70 percent or more people would do that. You can interpret it as being fearful — they don’t want to reveal their political preferences, especially in this way, because of their negative connotations of being rightist or being extreme leftist in Chinese history. But my personal belief, by doing this a couple of times, is that most people genuinely do not have a clear idea, because of the lack of electoral competition to organize beliefs. And in the political discourse, we rarely talk about that these days in the reform era.

Kaiser: That’s interesting. I mentioned in 2015, we actually did a podcast about the paper, “Chinese Ideological Spectrum” that you published with Jennifer Pan. I went back and listened to it, I was pretty disappointed. I don’t think we got into it as much as I would have liked. But I want to talk about that work, though. And the paper that you followed up with, which was also with Jennifer, a few years later. Let’s do this: let’s imagine that you’re testifying in front of a Congressional committee, or a State Department or a National Security Council fact finding group, and they ask you — without going into all the detailed minutiae of your methodology, and we’re going to just assume that it’s all completely sound, which I think is a safe assumption here — what would you say are the most important features of the ideological landscape in China? How should we think about the major ideological orientations that you’d find among ordinary Chinese people? And how are these affected by different things like geography, or income or education level?

Yiqing: First of all, our beliefs also evolve, because of the new findings and new samples and new methods. I think this is how science should work. To give you an example, in the 2015 paper, where we use zuobiao data, as I said, because it’s less diverse, we see a very high correlation across domains. So let’s say people have preferences in the political domain, in economics domain, in the social domain, we find that their preferences are highly correlated up to 70 percent. This may be due to the fact that they are more knowledgeable elite college students. While we are conducting a similar survey based on zuobiao but revised some of the questions and fixed up some of the survey issues, we find a much lower correlation across different domains.

Kaiser: Interesting.

Yiqing: And Jason also found that in his work. So that’s how some of the findings have changed. But to answer your question based on our current understanding on what we can say about the policy preference or political preferences of the Chinese public, there are a couple points. First of all, let me say, a fraction of the Chinese public, and a significant fraction of the Chinese public that we surveyed, have pretty stable preferences in issue domains.

Kaiser: By stable, I want to make sure we understand what you mean. That means temporally, across time, they don’t change?

Yiqing: That’s something that we tried in the second paper. We surveyed people asking a bunch of questions, and then a couple months later, we asked those questions again. We also have a sample of college students, and we asked similar questions every six months to see whether their preferences are stable. It looks like for a large chunk of the survey respondents that we surveyed, their preference in several of the issue domains are very stable. Their political preferences, their preferences for market oriented reform, their social preferences — these are pretty stable. So this has policy implications, which means, although China is not an electoral democracy, there can be meaningful constraints on policies because of the preferences of people.

Kaiser: Interesting. So you don’t see that kind of one dimensional clustering where you found people in one quadrant, who were pro market reform, politically liberal, and socially liberal, all clustered in the same quadrant. And then people who were statist, in other words, who wanted more market participation by the state, people who were more culturally conservative who tended to answer questions about say, the importance of Confucianism or so forth. That makes sense to me that you would see more dimensionality to it now. Because one of the things that I had a problem with in the first batch, one thing that didn’t jive with my understanding of people, is how I didn’t feel like there were enough questions included to determine attitudes toward nationalism or toward nation, did that show up in the second round more?

Yiqing: Yeah, actually, a little bit more on the dimensionality. Our audience may be more familiar with ideological space in the United States where most political scientists believe there’s only one dimension. The social or racial dimension and the economic dimension are collapsing to one, because of fears of party competition. So basically, ordinary people’s preferences are organized by the least they follow. That’s one of the very popular series in American politics. But I think compared with the United States, the preferences of the Chinese public — although we find are stable — but they’re more diverse and they’re less polarized. Our conjecture is that it’s because of a lack of party competition or electoral competition.

Kaiser: Right. Oh, that makes sense.

Yiqing: And we do also find that a lot of the preferences in different issue areas are connected with national identity, or preferences related to sovereignty or foreign affairs. So in the new survey, we actually have fourteen questions looking at that.

Kaiser: The old survey I found, I mean, I talked about that in that 2015 podcast, I felt like there weren’t enough questions that seemed specifically to draw out people’s attitudes toward sovereignty and territoriality and things like that. One criticism — you talk about this in the background to that second paper especially — there’s this tendency to argue amongst some people that you really can’t have meaningful and coherent policy preferences in authoritarian states, because they’re manipulated by the state itself through censorship, through propaganda and coercion. And then another criticism is, okay, so maybe we will do but does that even matter, because there isn’t a mechanism by which those policy preferences translate into policy? How would you speak to those lines of critique?

Yiqing: Well, I think people around the world are similar in terms of how their minds work, but the social contexts are vastly different. There’s also fierce debate in the United States, also in American parties, about whether people have firm organized beliefs or ideology. Most scholars will say they don’t. Instead they have policy attitudes, they have moods, and those moods will change very quickly, because of the discourse of the elites, as probably we have seen over the past few years as some of the conservative policy preferences have changed. But that’s a debate still not resolved. And I think it’s a similar thing in China. People because of the environment they grew up in, because of their social and economic well being, they develop some ideas. And some ideas go hand in hand with other ideas. And their preference for particular policy or particular political institutions may be shifted by information that they gather, by threats that they perceive from other countries, that’s all possible. But these two things: the fact that they have relatively stable preferences or belief systems, and the fact that their preference in certain issues can be changed. These two are not contradictory.

You asked me what I want to convey to potential policymakers with our study. I think, just to follow up on your point on nationalism, a lot of policy preferences are connected to the national identity and especially the narrative of China’s suffering from the hundred years of humiliation and renaissance in recent years led by the Communist Party of China. I think that’s a very strong narrative and plays a more and more important role in recent years.

So one question we get asked a lot, and one that we are very interested in answering, is whether young people are becoming more political, liberal or socially liberal and more pro democracy, compared with older generations, right? This is actually a hard question, because technically, it’s difficult to distinguish age from cohort effects. But by collecting some data, we start to see that the young generations are becoming more socially liberal. They’re open to same sex marriage, so on so forth. But politically, we see that the trend of becoming more politically liberal has passed in recent years.

Kaiser: It’s interesting, I think you were quoted actually in this piece by Stephanie Studer in The Economist, where I think she probably interviewed you for your views —

Yiqing: Yeah we chatted.

Kaiser: — on young Chinese. And that was her finding as well: that they were more socially liberal, but maybe more nationalistic at the same time, or more, I think the word we liked was “confident in the country” at the same time. That’s really fascinating. And we’re going to get into a little bit about that longitudinal study that you’re doing on Chinese college students and their counterparts studying in the United States in just a little bit.

Let me ask you though, first about another paper that you did, a recent one from the spring, that examined millions of social media posts on Weibo about COVID-19 to understand whether the pandemic triggered public anger and weakened support for the Chinese leadership or not. I mean, studies have shown that in times of crisis, the public will naturally look to specific targets to blame and to find responsibility, and to make sense of events. But at the same time, people also tend to double down on their support for existing institutions, in order to find some actual sense of safety, whether symbolic or real. Help us understand how this balance and how this tug-of-war played out in public sentiment on Weibo at the outset of the pandemic?

Yiqing: So first of all, I’d like to say the motivation to do this study are twofold. First, it is very difficult to get real-time public opinion surveys in China, right? Speaking to a concern that you mentioned earlier, because we lack the technology or ability to do such surveys right now in China, we turn to Weibo, our social media platform, where we can, in real time, see how people are responding to events. And second, on U.S. media platforms when COVID-19 first broke out, there was a lot of debate or conversation about whether this is a Chernobyl moment for China. And I am also a Weibo user. I observed a lot of negative comments on the government, especially local governments actions, but I also saw a lot of support. Or to answer the question of what’s the balance between support and criticism against the government or of the healthcare workers, we really need to look at the data to get a real sense, that’s why we conduct this study.

Kaiser: Right. And what did you find?

Yiqing: Well, we found that there are three spikes of criticism, and always accompanied by support of comparable size at a very early stage of the pandemic. So the first one is that the Wuhan lockdown, and then there are a few controversies about the medical supplies. And then the third one is the —

Kaiser: Li Wenliang.

Yiqing: The passing away of Dr. Li Wenliang.

Kaiser: The ophthalmologist who wrote a Weibo message that was deleted — or a Weixin message rather — and he was called to account for that. And then he subsequently died, as you say. Very sad. I mean, probably no surprises there though.

Yiqing: I wouldn’t say that actually. What’s surprising to me is that the amount of support is comparable to the amount of criticism online, at least, if we only count the original posts. There are some technical issues we encounter which makes it very difficult to count the re-shares. But if we look at the original posts, the number of posts are similar, and most of them are posted by ordinary users.

Kaiser: I mean, it seems though, that how the government responds to any crisis, whether it’s 2008 — the earthquake — or anything, that has a huge impact on public sentiment. So what in the case of Weibo users in the early days of COVID-19 was more impactful? Was it the suppression of information regarding the virus? Or was it the quick action and aggressive measures that were adopted to counter its spread? I mean, how did the reactions change over time in response to these and if you had to pronounce whether it was the censorship that was more effective, or was it actually the actions that were taken that seemed to shape public opinion more?

Yiqing: We tried to look into this question because we got one sample that had both pre-censor data and post-censor data. These are collected in real time. Basically you scan the users’ timeline, and fifteen minutes later, you scan again — you see whether some of the posts are removed. We didn’t see, at least at the early stage of the COVID-19 crisis, we didn’t see a large amount of censorship for criticism over local governments. Most of the criticism were targeting local government at that time. And it also strikes me as a surprise, during those days, I saw a lot of posts among my friends and people I follow, which are negative about the Wuhan and the Hubei government. In a study, what we find is that, although it’s not anything remotely causal, we do see in a time series fashion, that there is more support showing up after quick action of the central government. And also some of the quicker reactions by other local governments like the Shanghai Municipal Governmental and Zhejiang government, who did a pretty good job of locking down and screening people and doing testing.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. So let’s talk about another one of your papers, which you co authored with your Stanford colleagues, Fan Yingjie and Jennifer Pan, and Shao Zijie at Zhongguo Chuanmei Daxue [Communication University of China]. You looked at discrimination experienced in the United States among Chinese students, and how it has impacted attitudes, interestingly, toward authoritarian rule in China, can you talk about a little bit about the research design of that, how you put that together and what your study found? I thought that was fascinating.

Yiqing: Thank you. This was actually part of a larger study now that we planned to do over the next few years. So we planned to follow 800 students, Chinese students, in both Chinese universities and American universities for four years. So basically, we surveyed them right after they landed in the U.S., or started their university college life in China. And then we would do a first round survey, and then every six months, we would do another survey. And in the second round of the survey, suddenly COVID broke out, and then we observed a lot of episodes of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Asians, and also online commentators against Chinese. So we embed this experiment in the second wave of the study. But we will keep doing the longitudinal studies with these 800 students.

Kaiser: So was it discrimination, policy discrimination, like visa policies and things like that, or were you looking at instances of hate crime? What constituted discrimination? Were you looking at governmental discrimination, or were you also looking just at societal discrimination?

Yiqing: Okay, so the design is what we call a survey experiment where we randomly show people different information. In the control group, we showed people, following the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, commentary by Chinese commentators on Weibo, or what looked like on Weibo, that was critical of the Chinese government, its action, local governments action. So then we had two treatment groups. In one treatment group, we had a very similar article, a real article by U.S. media, followed by American commentators critical of the Chinese government. That’s the first treatment. And then the second treatment is the same article, followed by American comments, not only critical —

Kaiser: With racist language.

Yiqing: Yes, it was also racist language against Chinese, like diets and other things.

Kaiser: Right, eating bats and blah, blah, right, right, right.

Yiqing: And the second treatment compared with the control condition, increased the probability of respondents saying that they don’t want any change with the political system. While comparing the control condition and the first treatment, which also American commentators critical of the Chinese government and their actions in the early stage of COVID-19, does not show a difference. This means, basically, the students we surveyed are okay with receiving critical comments, at least at that time.

Kaiser: Given the handling of the Li Wenliang thing. But if they added that variable of racist commentary, of discriminatory commentary, then suddenly their support for authoritarianism is elevated.

Yiqing: The support for the political status quo increases.

Kaiser: How much is it statistically significant?

Yiqing: Yes, by our standards it is. But it can be a short term effect, because afterwards they receive a lot of dosage of a treatment from real life. So we wouldn’t know how strong the effect is.

Kaiser: Right, that’s how it goes in real life. So I thought it was a fascinating one. I mean, it has clear theoretical implications, I think, but also relevant policy implications. Would it be too simplistic for me to suggest that if there were a way for the U.S. to miraculously eliminate discriminatory policies aimed at China, and eliminate discrimination toward Chinese, that suddenly it would maybe restore some of the Chinese students’ support for democratization efforts in China? I mean, we’ve talked about this before how, in the last year or so, the luster of the American beacon, some of the luster, has come off it. And over lunch, one of the many things that we were talking about was how a lot of your friends, especially ones who are in STEM fields back in China, who used to be real fans of the American political system, have really, really soured on it. And this is something that we’ve all observed anecdotally, I mean, I’ve seen this happen in so many of my friends as well. Would that be reversed if we were to remove all the racist commentary?

Yiqing: That’s a great question. But before we delve into that, I want to put a qualification on what you just said. Even after exposure to so much racism and hate crimes in the real life, we still observe that Chinese students in the U.S. are more political liberal and socially liberal and less nationalistic than their counterparts in China, both are in —

Kaiser: That’s a baseline thing.

Yiqing: That’s a baseline thing, which is still very strong. We don’t know whether it’s about U.S. education, or their interaction with Americans and with other people, or simply selection. This group of students are selecting to American institutions. Before they come to the United States, they’re more socially and economically liberal. So we don’t know that. But to answer your question, I really don’t know, because the media has its own logic to itself.

Kaiser: It really does. Well, speaking of Chinese students in America and Chinese students here, you’ve talked about this being part of this big ambitious longitudinal study. And you were kind enough to share some of the early findings of that with me. Can you give our listeners a preview of what kinds of questions are driving the next rounds of research based on this longitudinal study, and maybe share some of your latest preliminary findings?

Yiqing: Sure. This was actually a pilot study. So we plan to run more in the following years. But because of the pandemic, we couldn’t reach out to people and do a larger scale survey. So this is still fairly small in scale, only 300 people at about 60 U.S. universities. And we have already seen multiple universities reach out to students. This was extremely difficult during the pandemic, so we didn’t do that.

Yiqing: In China, we recruited students from three elite universities. And this third round and the fourth round — we talked about the racism experiment, which is in the second round — and in the third wave and fourth wave, we are interested in questions about what criteria students from China use to evaluate a good governance, a good party, a good government. Very preliminary results show that compared with their counterparts in China, Chinese students in the U.S. seem to value procedural justice more when evaluating a party, a government.

Kaiser: Rule of law.

Yiqing: Rule of law, some elements of election, freedom of speech, things like that.

Kaiser: Okay.

Yiqing: Which gives me some hope.

Kaiser: The beacon is not completely dimmed.

Yiqing: But this is all comparative, they also value a great deal the performance of the government efficacy, responsiveness, income, equality, things like that.

Kaiser: The work that you do is just so fascinating to me, but I still can’t help but want to ask you this: I’m always curious, do you think that somebody who has a good intuition just based on just lots of interactions with people from different socio economic strata in China, and who really does pay attention to political discourse in China, through their reading and through online interactions, through conversations with family and with friends, would they measure up in terms of accuracy compared to the survey results? I mean, somebody like you, I mean, you probably wouldn’t be surprised I think by too much of what the data yields up. I can’t imagine you being completely shocked at the results that you come up with. I mean, I wonder, I appreciate, I’m all for doing what you’re doing, often because it confirms what I already believe. No, that’s not fair. I really do think it’s valuable, but I wonder if we aren’t maybe focusing so much on quantitative methods, that we’re not maybe trusting the well honed instincts of people who are really steeped in the qualitative stuff enough. Because I feel like if I only had a choice, if I could read one qualitative study, or I could talk to one of the people who are on the ground and in touch, I mean, I would almost rather trust your instincts in the conversation, than trust the data that you come up with.

Yiqing: As I said earlier, I think data plays a facilitating role to either confirm or eliminate hypotheses. And these hypotheses are developed by people with experiences and by talking to real people on the ground. So I think you cannot skip the first step. And then, that’s actually why I see a lot of not so great quantitative papers where researchers get data and then try to get something out of data, without any experience on the ground.

Kaiser: You made a joke over lunch today, and when I talked about “data driven,” you corrected me, you said, “No, question driven.” I think that’s significant. You still believe that it’s the question that should drive the research?

Yiqing: Of course, of course, because as I said, there are an infinite number of questions that you can study with data and there’s an abundance of data right now. So which question to study matters a lot. And in my personal experience, it is also the case that if you have some good intuition, the chances that you can confirm this with data is much higher. It also makes the publication process easier for young scholars, if that matters.

Kaiser: You get that infographic, right?

Yiqing: But I want to add on top of that, I think the intuition and the ability to develop concepts are very important and it is very difficult to— this kind of skill is very difficult to acquire.

Kaiser: I mean, do people still use Delphic methods for example? I mean, can you—

Yiqing: Delphic?

Kaiser: Delphic is where you survey a bunch of experts, and you ask a whole bunch of people who are experts, and I mean, I haven’t seen anything done like that in the China field for a very long time. It’d be kind of interesting to see. Anyway, I’m kind of missing my former life as an academic sometimes. It’s really fun to be able to read a bunch of papers and get back into it and try to keep current on it.

I’ve got one more question for you, which I will see what you think of this. Do you think political science research on China, especially people who are themselves from China, is coming under pressure in this worsening era of Sino-American relations? I mean, are you or your colleagues facing pressure to shape your research or change the sorts of questions that are driving your research in response to the current environment? I mean, my sense is that, on the one hand, it’s a good thing, because we obviously don’t understand authoritarianism, or Chinese nationalism, or sources of regime support as well as we should. And maybe, because of this increasingly competitive environment, we’re incentivized to better understand these things. And maybe that’s driving research that you would already otherwise be doing. But I can imagine a downside to it too, where there’s sort of— the questions are more pointedly toward national security-focused data?

Yiqing: Right. So first of all, personally, I don’t feel any pressure from either my school or my peers, or my colleagues to do a certain type of research or not do some type of research. And I very much appreciate the opportunity they have given us so far. Personally in academia I haven’t encountered major discrimination as an Asian man. But I do think the scenes are changing in the field. A few years ago, a lot of young scholars were working on a certain term, “resilience.” It was a very popular idea back then. And now more people are studying censorship, thanks to my stellar colleagues, Molly Roberts, Jennifer Pan, and Gary King, sort of their early work, but a lot of people are studying propaganda, censorship, surveillance, and repression. That’s a change of scene.

But let me try to approach this question slightly differently. So the way I see it is that there are several different types of research. So one type is more topical or more related to policy implication, you can directly see why we study this, because there’s a demand for that. And much of this research is important at that moment and can have lasting impact. Another two types of researchers are more related to “us as social scientists or us as historians.” So what does that mean? So as social scientists, we want to find, I don’t know whether that’s possible ultimately, that’s a philosophical question. But ultimately, we want to find certain rules or mechanisms that can be generalized to different societies and to deepen our understanding of mankind. That’s our role as a social scientist, but it’s extremely difficult. As I said earlier, society is so complex. There are millions of variables, which variable to look at is a first order question. And we also have a role of being a historian, I think you can relate to that, for a short time horizon. A historian looks at history maybe thousands of years ago or 200 years ago, but we social scientists take a short time horizon. We look at history happening right now or during the past ten, twenty years, where we can gather better data. As historians, you also have a choice of which aspect of society or politics you want to look at. You’re making an active choice when you select a topic. But you can be more value neutral. You can take a position that I want to keep a record of what’s happening now, such that other historians of the next generation can better understand our society right now.

So I see my research — I’m trying to play multiple roles when I develop my research. Some of our research topics are more relevant to the debate happening right now, like the racism paper, And some of them are, I try to speak to more general social science — I don’t want to say rules — but lessons that we can generalize to other contexts. And we also want to keep records for future generations of social scientists or historians. I don’t know whether it’s too broad of a claim, but saying this makes me feel I don’t have to be pressured to study certain topics, or not to study certain topics because of the political environment of this moment.

Kaiser: Yiqing Xu, I can’t tell you how of a pleasure it’s been to talk to you and to finally make your acquaintance in person. Thank you so much for driving up to Berkeley from Stanford. And I can say with absolute assurance, I will be really happy to have you back on the show again, because there’s so much more to talk about —

Yiqing: Thank you, Kaiser.

Kaiser: — with the research that you do. That’s just wonderful. Let’s move on to recommendations. But first, a very quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina, if you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and with all the other shows in the Sinica Network, please show your support by subscribing to SupChina Access, our daily email newsletter.

I also want to take this opportunity to bid a very fond farewell to my colleague of nearly four years, Jason MacRonald, who has been just an enormous help to us with the whole endeavor, the whole podcast network and everything we do at SupChina. He has watched this grow from just the one show to nine. Jason, you will be sorely missed. And we are sure that you’re going to be going on to great things. If you’re an academic out there listening and you’re looking for somebody who will be an extremely promising graduate student, Jason will be boning up for that and getting ready to take the GRE. Thanks for everything that you’ve done for Sinica and for SupChina, Jason. Okay, on to recommendations, Yiqing, what do you have for us?

Yiqing: I would recommend X Japan. Have you heard of them?

Kaiser: Yeah!

Yiqing: I really loved them. I started to listen to them in high school, they blew my mind, they are a great band. So I think a lot of young people don’t know them. I think it’s a great, great band.

Kaiser: I didn’t know that you were a music guy.

Yiqing: Well, I’m not a music guy music guy, but I still from time to time like listening to music.

Kaiser: Cool. Cool. Cool. No, that’s an excellent recommendation. Actually by sheer coincidence, I have an album by a band. I want to recommend the album Discipline by King Crimson, which to my delight, my musically gifted niece Camille who just graduated from UC Berkeley, and is heading to Taiwan soon has discovered. I mean, her father who’s an ol’ big King Crimson fan like me, my brother, he familiarized her with it. During my time here I have been spending a lot of time with my delightful nieces. One of them is in med school and the other is burnishing her Chinese and getting ready to go, just graduated from college and with my nephew, much of that time has been just nerding out on music related things. My late sister-in-law had a great vinyl collection and we’ve been going through that and stuff, but the Bay Area is just such an absolute treat when you don’t actually have to live here and pay for it. And I’ve been spending such quality time with my family here, but things are just ridiculously expensive, I’m grateful that I don’t actually live here. Anyway, the album Discipline. It’s from this trio of albums they put out in the ’80s. The other — there was Discipline and then there’s Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair, which are both great. But Discipline is really the one. It’s just the best and it holds up just extraordinarily well thirty or whatever years later. It’s just a really great record. So check it out. All right, Yiqing, what a pleasure.

Yiqing: My pleasure. It was really fun.

Kaiser: I’m looking forward to hanging out again.

Yiqing: Thank you Kaiser.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com. Follow us on Twitter or on Facebook @SupChinaNews, and make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week. Take care.