Meet the Incoming Vice President: Jean C. Oi

Portrait of Jean C. Oi
Jean C. Oi

Jean C. Oi will take office as the next AAS Vice President following the 2022 Annual Conference in March. Oi is William Haas Professor of Chinese Politics, Department of Political Science and Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, Director of the China Program at Stanford University and Lee Shau Kee Director of the Stanford Center at Peking University. She has been a member of the AAS since 1974.

I am a political scientist whose research focuses on comparative politics, Chinese political economy, corporate restructuring, and governance in Asia. I have conducted fieldwork in China since the mid-1980s and written on China’s rural politics, central-local relations, and how China’s political and economic institutions have adapted to the tensions and opportunities wrought by the country’s dramatic transformation. My newest project focuses on China going global with its Belt and Road Initiative.

I study economic issues as a window into politics. Using a political economy perspective, I have “followed the money,” loosely defined—first grain, then taxes, and most recently local government debt. As an overly ambitious doctoral student, I went out to the field to examine how control over grain was used as a source of power from the Qing dynasty, through the Republican period, to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But whether the Qing or the PRC or whether it is grain or taxes, a persistent theme in all my work is the weight of institutions—policies, regulations, organizations, or structures in a polity. Starting with my first book, State and Peasant in Contemporary China: The Political Economy of Village Government (University of California Press, 1989), which was about China’s grain procurement system, I have tried to unravel the incentives that state policies create for those who must live in the system. I discovered that the state-allocated right of local officials to allocate those goods and resources opened the door to patron-client ties shaping elite mass relations in China’s socialist system. My second book, Rural China Takes Off: Institutional Foundations of Economic Reform (University of California Press, 1999), examined how a new fiscal system could prompt local communist officials to spearhead local state development, leading to what I call local state corporatism.

I am a believer in using diverse methods, though, in practice, I have relied most heavily on fieldwork and interviews. I was among the last generation of graduate students to do interviews at the original Universities Service Centre (USC) on Argyle Street in Hong Kong with recent arrivals from China, legal and illegal. Even after fieldwork was possible in China, those conversations at the USC still stand out as among the most insightful, in many ways foundational in forming my understanding of China. They cautioned me never to take institutions at face value, but to try to go inside the formal structures to see how things were done in practice, as opposed to how they were supposed to be done in principle.

Thanks to the late Michel Oksenberg, my advisor at Michigan, who set up the first open fieldwork site for American scholars in China, starting in the late 1980s I was able to study one county’s political economy in great depth. I returned numerous times over more than two decades and eventually brought a younger generation of scholars to this county so that they could use fieldwork and interviews to study how the institutions of governance had evolved over the decades of reform. Our findings resulted in an edited volume with Steven Goldstein, Zouping Revisited: Adaptive Governance in a Chinese County (Stanford University Press, 2018). We found that through adaptive governance, China’s local governments were able to improvise and survive. At the heart of authoritarian resilience in China is institutional agility in the face of incomplete reform.

Cover of Fateful Decisions, edited by Jean C. Oi and Thomas Fingar

But the question, 40 years into the reform process, is whether the current leaders can continue to kick the can down the road, without completing the reform process. In a co-edited volume withTom Fingar, Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China’s Future (Stanford University Press, 2020), we argue that China seems to be “going back to the future,” relying on a playbook not seen since the Mao period.

With China’s growing power that is shifting the global center of gravity, it is all the more important to have an in-depth, dynamic view of China to understand domestic as well as international politics. The need for rigorous and engaged scholarship about China and Asia generally is more critical than ever. As such, I feel very strongly that the AAS should strive to become the premier association where scholars from all disciplines can feel at home, and where researchers of all perspectives can convene to interact, debate, promote cross-cultural understanding, and address pressing challenges, many of which are of global importance.

Jean C. Oi, seated and listening during a panel presentation.

One of my most firmly held beliefs is that area studies—with their in-depth, multidisciplinary perspective—offer invaluable insights into trends and pressing problems that traditional disciplines often miss. As such, I have consistently attempted to make area studies, especially China studies, an essential part of mainstream political science research. I co-organized with other political scientists from Duke, Harvard, MIT, and the University of Michigan a series of workshops, convening China politics scholars, especially the younger generation, to devise and engage in a new phase of Chinese politics research that has great potential to generate fresh theories and methodological insights within the discipline of political science. This cooperative effort exemplifies how to ensure that the next generation of scholars will integrate rigorous area expertise with disciplinary theory. I hope to find similar ways for the AAS to serve that role for all disciplines.

In all my institutional leadership positions, I have tried to bridge the social sciences and the humanities. As the director of Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies (1998 to 2005) and the founding director of the China Program at Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (starting in 2007), I brought together cutting-edge fieldwork and policy interests in both teaching and public programming. I also worked to extend Stanford’s interest in Asia beyond the home campus by establishing the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) to be a “home away from home” in Beijing for all faculty and students from Stanford’s seven schools. Since its creation in 2012, SCPKU has brought together scholars from east and west, serving as a unique hub for interdisciplinary gatherings with Chinese and international colleagues. This role continues even as the geopolitical situation changes.

I am honored to have been elected as the AAS Vice President. I look forward to working with you to find ways to ensure that all scholars—regardless of whether they are trained in the humanities, social sciences, or even scientific and medical fields—will deem our conferences, meetings, and workshops important platforms at which to present their work, exchange ideas, and meet experts in their areas of research. I especially want to attract the younger generation of scholars, who increasingly focus on their disciplines rather than on area expertise. I want your help to make the AAS as relevant to them as the disciplinary associations. As Asia gains in importance, our responsibility to educate scholars who not only possess mastery over their disciplinary knowledge but also area expertise seems increasingly critical. I look forward to working with you and invite your participation in advancing the AAS’s mission and its pledge to build diversity, equity, and excellence in Asian studies. I am honored to serve you at the AAS as we chart the Association’s future course. We need to open new ways of thinking and doors into the future of academic work, teaching, and research.