Guest blogs

Association for Asian Studies Conference Review - Deanna Kolberg

The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada.  In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there.  This first post is written by Deanna Kolberg, LRCCS PhD candidate.

Deanna Kolberg   PhD Candidate History Comparative Politics; Authoritarian Institutions; Regime Change in Asia

Deanna Kolberg

PhD Candidate
Comparative Politics; Authoritarian Institutions; Regime Change in Asia

What more could a grad student want than good food, a cool city, and the chance to hear the newest work in Asian Studies! This year’s Association for Asian Studies Conference was held in Toronto - a city particularly known for having great authentic Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food. In addition to stuffing my face with Ramen, Jianbing, and Japanese Cheesecake, I attending panels on topics of democratization in Asia, street-level bureaucracy, opposition to authoritarianism, and others. 

In this post I’ll describe one panel presentation that I particularly enjoyed during the conference and how two of these presentations on the panel can serve as a jumping-off point for further research. I’m really excited about the work in Chinese studies that focuses on the subnational level. My personal affinity in political science research leads me to believe that we can gain more traction on interesting questions by looking at local bureaucracy and the provision of goods and services: the bread and butter of authoritarian resilience. It’s telling that arguably the largest challenge to President Xi Jinping’s rule was Bo Xilai, a politician who operated far away from Beijing and drew power from decentralization. In general, I think some of the most interesting questions in Chinese politics today deal with decentralization in an authoritarian regime. We all know that China is really, really big and so an authoritarian state must employ strategies to compel their local agents to follow instructions, and likewise these local agents have some freedom to deviate from the central plan. 

Vivian Zhan, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, addressed Xi Jinping’s famous anti-corruption campaign in a different light. Usually political scientists like to discuss the fly and tiger approach to corruption cleanup as a way for Xi Jinping to root out his enemies across the country and throughout the deep bureaucratic state in China. This publicly denigrates and politically demolishes people accused of corruption and warns others that their tenure is easily cut short, says the authoritarian resiliency literature. Vivian’s work however shows that anticorruption may be used to stimulate growth. A massive dataset of work reports of central and local prosecutors from 1999-2009 show patterns in where the state goes after corruption and issue areas that general work reports highlight as priorities in that year. Roughly, her work suggests that corruption prosecutors are working in tandem with economic growth targets. While her brief presentation never addressed the connection between her work and Yuen Yuen Ang’s I think the crossover is really interesting. Yuen’s book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap shows that much of China’s industrialization can be attributed to the successful usage of “bad” institutions already existing in China. Corruption and Patronage are generally thought to prevent economic growth but Yuen suggests they instead help to build markets, and “good” institutions free of corruption and patronage sustain markets after they are built. Combining their work, I would expect to see a geographic range based on levels of development: root out corruption in the booming markets on the East Coast, and keep corruption, for a limited time, inland to help build markets.  

I also really enjoyed hearing about Sara Newland’s audit experiment in Taiwan. She sent out requests through local government online request boards and varied only the name of the requester: some emails were sent using a Han name and others were sent using an indigenous name. While her work didn’t demonstrate much systematic bias, the method of her research is intriguing. She suggests that local level bureaucrats in Taiwan have an immense database of requests for help with public service complaints disaggregated to the county level. This data could be used on research on a central tenet of political science: resource distribution, political responsiveness, and bureaucratic capacity. I hope to see more research using this type of data in Taiwan! 

Stay tuned for more insight into AAS 2017

AAS Guest Blog Post: Xiaoxi Zhang

Xiaoxi Zhang LRCCS PhD Candidate

Xiaoxi Zhang
LRCCS PhD Candidate

As someone from comparative literature with former background in Portuguese and Spanish studies, I am first and foremost impressed by the multiculturality, multidisciplinarity and the scope of scholarships in the panels and the cultural events in this conference. It in an excellent opportunity for me to get to know what some Asian scholars in other fields are studying, and what some of their concerns are.

Since my goal in the studies I am doing is to come up with a paradigm for comparative studies in literature and culture between China and some underprivileged countries and regions in Latin America, Africa and the Iberian peninsula, without reducing the cultural merits of each region I study to social problems and political debates, it is encouraging for me to see that many historians, political scientists and social scientists, in the panels I attended, voiced deep concerns for issues on language, literatures, and cultures from both within and outside the geographical confinements of Asia.

One panel of particular interest to me is “Chinese Public Diplomacy in Africa: Theories and Cases”, with presentation and discussions of a study on the transmission of China’s cultural image on Internet, radio and television in Africa. Instead of focusing merely on social issues or leading towards a hasty moral judgment, many questions raised in this panel called for a critical re-evaluation of some cultural productions in contemporary China through comparison with similar issues in Latin America and in South Asia, as well as with studies on China’s image in those areas.

New Books!  Photo by Xiaoxi Zhang

New Books! Photo by Xiaoxi Zhang

With a broadened horizon that comes from my experience in the panels, I started to understand better the merits of some transcontinental comparative studies done in South Asian countries - India in particular - which is reflected in the book exhibit of new publications from several different publishers.

One surprise for me is the lack of panels dedicated to studies of more popular cultural productions in China and in many other parts of Asia, such as TV series and popular music, in contrast to what is normal in a conference in fields like Latin America Studies. This is one of the questions that I will try to explore and understand in the future.


AAS Guest Blog Post: Neal McKenna

Neal McKenna LRCCS MA Candidate  

Neal McKenna
LRCCS MA Candidate

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Seattle on Day 3 of the Association for Asian Studies annual conference 2016. The atmosphere is friendly and full of excited potential as old friends reunite and scholars of all backgrounds seek each other out to exchange ideas and discuss future collaborations. I have witnessed some great panel discussions and one slightly disappointing panel. I sometimes feel these conference panel titles could use a good strict Rectification of Names. It has been great to put a face to many of the names I have been reading for my research. It has also been a validating experience to see how my research aligns with the research of many established scholars. The University of Michigan is represented very well by the current students, faculty and staff attending and the many alumni scholars who are presenting on various panels. It's been great, for me both a productive and fun experience.

Call for Blog Posts

Write for the LRCCS Blog! (TYLER, "Spirit of 798" - LRCCS Photo contest 2014) 

Write for the LRCCS Blog! (TYLER, "Spirit of 798" - LRCCS Photo contest 2014) 

The LRCCS community is filled with scholars, activists, local community members, and more.  We would love to hear your story!  This is an invitation to all LRCCS community members (event attendants, faculty, staff, students, and anyone who’s ever had any involvement with us) to submit guest posts for our blog.

Topics could include:

  • Promoting your work, research, and events related to China
  • Sharing your LRCCS story – your experience at our sponsored events, your China adventures, or anything related to the Center
  • Cross-posts from other blogs you may write for related to China

Our community is bursting with amazing people and stories.  Don’t leave yours untold!

If you’d like to submit a post, send an email to Eric Couillard ( with your idea and expect a response within one week.

LRCCS MA students guest blog from the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in Chicago

Ryan Etzcorn (Second-year LRCCS MA student/MPP student, Ford School of Public Policy)

In preparing for my first visit to the AAS conference, I can only imagine that my experience has been shared by plenty of eager graduate students before me. The moment I got my hands on a conference program I began poring over panel offerings -- starring and circling anything that remotely resembled any worthwhile relevance to my own particular topics of research interest. In the first days of AAS I quickly came to realize that my thinking in navigating such a massive catalog of scholarly production was all wrong. 

With each talk I visited I progressively noticed a pattern that defied expectations. It seemed that the closer a talk drew to my research interest, the less I took away when each presentation reached its conclusion. It wasn't that the quality of the research was necessarily lacking, I found, instead I came to realize that the real limitation was just that the presenters themselves weren't afforded enough time to engage a particular issue I cared about in any great depth. 15 minutes gave them just enough time to flash through the broad strokes of projects they had slaved over for years. 

What seemed to be a pitfall, however, quickly transformed itself into a more valuable understanding of how to reallyappreciate the conference. This happened for me when I stumbled across a talk on labor migration from Indonesia and NGO advocacy. I had come to this particular panel in search of more empirical ammunition on my own ongoing research of China's complex civil society, only to find -- to my great disappointment -- that the speaker addressing this issue had fallen ill and failed to attend. But halfway through this presentation on an Indonesian context that I knew next to nothing about, I was struck hard by something the presenter said about this context that made me look at China in an entirely new way. Without boring anyone reading this with the details, I quickly understood that I may have finally caught on to the research question I've been hunting for weeks. From then on I decided that the true gold at AAS is at the panels that featured topics, regions, and methods that I had little prior exposure to. I've always felt that the most memorable experiences I could have are those where I'm one of the most novice people in the room, and now that I've reworked that thinking at AAS, I feel recharged for the rest of the conference! 

Neal McKenna (First-year LRCCS MA student)

Friday at AAS has been a great day. I've attended panels on urbanization, thought work and adaptive authoritarianism. The conference is taking place in a great part of Chicago and I've taken advantage of my free time to sample local cuisine (Portillo's, Pizzeria Due). I have yet to check out the exhibition hall but I look forward to the book selection. 

I am going to focus on the second panel I attended this morning, titled "Adaptive Authoritarianism in Cyber China." Dr. Ashley Escarey gave a very interesting talk about work he is doing with a colleague, examining online censorship in response to the famous article by King, Pan and Roberts. King, Pan and Roberts concluded that the censorship apparatus of the CCP focuses on censoring posts with high collective action potential but allows posts that criticize the government. Escarey performed a content analysis on leaked Hunan government directives to website administrators. His study finds that the government in fact attempts to censor criticism, but fails very often. The directives most frequently emphasize the importance of monitoring/censoring references to the media industry, Internet providers and telecommunications. They also not the importance of preventing the visibility of instances of pluralism within the government and the importance of hiding internal differences.

Dr. Jonathan Hassid presented  thought-provoking consideration of the potential risks of the CCP's responsiveness to issues that are raised online. He examined whether the responsiveness of the government to issues that gain traction online will actually undermine reforms and lead to increased influence of Internet commentators, a shift from the proletariat to the commentariat. He also importantly considers the demographics of Internet users, and considers how the issues that are raised online by Chinese Internet users are not necessarily representative of the issues important to all Chinese people, and yet many social issues that get the quickest response are those that gain momentum online.

While I have benefitted from all the panels I have attended, I am dismayed at the lack of panels examining media, technology and information in China. While Dr. Escarey was responding to King, Pan and Roberts' study, Jennifer Pan was herself presenting in a panel titled "Information Gathering in Contemporary China", which I also very much wanted to attend. It was disappointing that both these panels were scheduled for the same time, as I feel that many people would have liked to attend both, and many of the presenters would have benefitted from discussing their work together. 

Unfortunately I leave tomorrow but I am very glad to have attended and rubbed elbows with so many experts and educators in Asian Studies, and to have gotten my first taste of AAS. Looking forward to Seattle in 2016!

Andrea Valedon (First-year LRCCS MA student)

As my first academic conference, I imagined I would be overwhelmed at a conference as large as AAS where over a thousand people come to attend hundreds of panels. By the time I wove around scores of people in search of the registration booth, I had already seen four people I knew, both professors and graduate students from various universities. Even among hundreds of strangers, I still felt like I was part of a community.

Each day of the conference, my community grows. Meeting the scholars whose work I have read and admired feels like meeting a celebrity. As a student who focuses on Islam in China at the University of Michigan, I don’t really have many other students or professors to chat with in depth on this topic, as no one at UMich has this particular specialty. In two days, I have already met scores of students and professors who share my interests and have freely offered me valuable insight and advice regarding my thesis project and future academic goals. Even as strangers, our mutual academic interests allow us to feel a particular connection, and it’s exciting to talk to others who are as fascinated by Islam in China as I am. It has amazed me how open and willing to help everyone I’ve met has been, whether they be a graduate student or an established scholar. 

These past few days have been a whirlwind of rushing from panel to panel with few breaks in between. My bottom is sore from sitting and I have the conference room layout nearly memorized from rushing back and forth to the panels- Arkansas room, level 2, Sheraton ballroom IV, level 4, Fairview room, level 3. Outside of the conference, I have eaten Chicago style hotdogs dripping with pickles and peppers and experienced the “wind” part of the Windy City. I have shared drinks with old friends and new while looking out over Lake Michigan and stood in line for coffee at 8amalongside everyone else who needed an extra jolt of energy for the early morning panels. AAS has been an exciting way to find out what research is currently being done in my field, learn more about topics I don’t directly study, and connect with people who nerd out over Islam in China just as hard as I do.