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