Q&A: Zouping Revised &Remembering Michel Oksenberg

by Debing Su

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What is the question you ask the most?

What's the hardest part of your job? Then you will know the challenges they face. What it's like to govern a factory or people.

Jean Oi, William Haas Professor of Chinese Politics in the Department of Political Science, Stanford University.

Steven M. Goldstein, Associate of the Fairbank Center and the director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University.

 

Jean Oi and Steven Goldstein co-edited Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County.    

 

Q: What's the book about?

Oi: It is about changes in China as seen through a county—Zouping. We have had access to this county since the 1980s, thanks to Michel Oksenberg, who taught at the University of Michigan from 1973 to 1991.

Since the '80s, a lot of dramatic major changes have happened in this county. A once poor agriculture-centered county has transformed itself into one of the richest counties in China. It is now home to Weiqiao textile factory, one of the largest cotton textile producers in the world, which started out as a small cooperative factory.  Weiqiao is now the largest producer of revenue in the county, far outstripping the Hupo beer factory, which at one point was a major source of revenue in Zouping.

But the book is not about economic changes. It is about political consequences of the economic changes in Zouping. How institutions can manage the complex changes that were going on and the people they governed?    

On the outside, you can see that the organizational charts look only slightly different than 30 years ago, but still the local government adapted and functioned as the county grew. Our book seeks to uncover what happens under the façade of no change.  It examines the political consequences of economic change.

 There is a chapter focusing on the township developments. One poor township that used to be subsidized by the county now is the richest. How did they do that? And why are some areas that are nearby still stagnant. 

Q: Where does the book idea come from?

Oi: In 2001, when Michel Oksenberg discovered he would not survive his cancer, he called to say that one of his biggest regrets was that he would not be able to finish his book on Zouping.  I told him that I would see that the Zouping book would get done. 

 He later called Andy Walder, Steve and myself together to discuss finishing the book.  Andy had already done the volume on Zouping.  Now, it was our (Steve and Jean) turn to do the second one.   

Goldstein: Michel has left us thousands pages of notes and interviews with Zouping officials. We couldn't work with those notes alone, so we decided to bring some of Jean's students to Zouping every year and update those notes using Michel's materials as reference documents.   

Q: What surprises you the most about Zouping?

Goldstein: I have been to Zouping twice. Unlike Jean and others, my trips came in the 2000s.

I am an urban boy, born in Brooklyn, New York. And my academic work focuses on foreign policy and cross-strait relations. China's countryside was new to me. What impressed me the most is how little Zouping city resembled my idea of the China countryside. Townships looked more Chinese to me. Zouping looked more urban.

Oi: What surprises me the most is the degree of change and growth. It has just been stunning.

Q: What's the most challenging thing you ever encountered as a researcher in Zouping?

Oi: Trying to grasp the different aspects and variations in the county. One thing we don't really have an answer for is how do you explain the success of one place and the lack of development of the one nearby. They are in the same county. One possible answer is the leadership. We talked to leaders and some came across as dynamos. The other possible answer is location. It plays a large role.

Understanding the language is another one. Zouping dialect is so hard. It always took a while for us to adjust.  For example, the word for two sounds like the word for six.   We didn’t know if it should be Tuesday or Saturday.

One funny thing about Michel Oksenberg is the way he spoke Chinese. It was good, but  some of his Chinese were words picked up from Zouping. So he repeated words the way he learned them in Zouping--with a local Zouping accent.

Goldstein: For me, the challenge is asking the right questions. I sat in on many of their interviews. And people were holding back a lot of information and you needed to press them on it. But once you press, you got a lot.

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The challenge is asking the right questions. I sat in on many of their interviews. And people were holding back a lot of information and you needed to press them on it. But once you press, you got a lot.

Steven M. Goldstein

I remember we were in a factory that makes tents. After the brief introduction, the conversation went like this. "Do you have factories in other parts of China?" "Yes, we have factories in other parts of China." "And where they are?" "They are in Xinjiang." And then information started to flow out.

They (interviewees) are not trying to mislead you. If you push, they will be extremely helpful and forthcoming.  

Oi: Interviewing remains a central part of understanding China—talking to people from different aspects of life. There is no substitute for it. You can read a lot of books and papers, but that is not enough. It is a gold mine of information if you go there.

I usually ask the same question in different places.   

Q: What is the question you ask the most?

Oi: What's the hardest part of your job? Then you will know the challenges they face. What it's like to govern a factory or people.

Q: What's your favorite memory of professor Michel Oksenberg?

Goldstein: Michel and I went to graduate school together. He was so enthusiastic about China. This is the story he told me about his first trip to China. I believe it was 1972. On the Great Wall, he asked a guy next to him "Am I the first American you ever met?" He loved asking this question. And the guy answered, "No, I met many Americans in Chao Xian." Michel thought it was a county named Chao. So, he kept asking what Chao Xian was like. Soon he realized that the guy was referring to North Korea and that he was a Korean War veteran.

Oi: (please click below)