Interview with Mary Gallagher - Part I

Mary Gallagher  Professor  Political Science  LRCCS Director

Mary Gallagher

Political Science

LRCCS Director

For the two year anniversary of the LRCCS Spotlight Interview series, I sat down with someone most of our readers already know – the director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, Mary Gallagher.  In this interview, Professor Gallagher talks about her new book, her first trip to China right after the student movements of 1989, and why she decided not to be a banker – among many other interesting topics.  Read on for the good stuff, and stay tuned for Part II coming out next week.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard


Couillard: I always like to start from the very beginning with these interviews.  Where did you grow up?  

Prof Gallagher: I grew up in a town called Bethel, Connecticut.  I stayed there until I was 18; most of my huge Irish-Catholic family still lives in that general vicinity.

Couillard: And how did you first get interested in China?

Prof Gallagher: Partly because I found French boring.  I studied French in middle and high school, went there on a summer exchange when I was in high school.  When I went to college, I fully intended to do a semester abroad in France or Switzerland. But instead , my freshman year I took a class titled “Whatever happened to Marxism?”  And became complete fascinated by China. In the summer after my freshman year, I enrolled in first-year intensive Chinese at Yale, which was near my home. I left eight years of French behind me and then applied to do study abroad in China.

I was supposed to go to China the summer of 1989, before my junior year in college.  We were actually supposed to arrive at Beijing Normal University on June 10, 1989. But after the crackdown on the student movement, our program shifted to Hong Kong for the summer and then proceeded to Nanjing University for the fall.  It was a really interesting time to be there.  That summer in Hong Kong, there were lots of protests against the Chinese government.  And as for the mainland, people who went there earlier in the 1980s remember that time as being very liberal, and where China was going as very open-ended. But for me it was a completely different experiment. It was a very constrained and repressive environment. People were afraid to talk to foreigners openly sometimes and my roommate used to say about the propaganda on megaphones on campus, “they’re blaming you again.” She meant of course that the Chinese government was vilifying the US government for the student movement.

Professor Gallagher (front row, four in from the right) with her study abroad class at Nanjing University in 1989

Professor Gallagher (front row, four in from the right) with her study abroad class at Nanjing University in 1989

Couillard: Wow.  I can’t even imagine.

Prof Gallagher: Yeah.  I went to Beijing for the first time for National Day in October of ’89 and at time you have a foreign passport to walk on Tiananmen Square.  You could clearly see tank marks and other evidence of what had happened

Couillard: Could you see bullet holes?

Prof Gallagher: In the early 90s I knew an elderly professor who biked with me to the west side of Chang’an Street to show me bullet holes in buildings. That made me very nervous.

Couillard: Were you afraid of getting in trouble?

Prof Gallagher: I felt like it was potentially dangerous for him to be showing me those things.  People at the time didn’t talk much about what had happened openly.  

The people who I know in China who were college students at that time can all tell stories of how they participated and what happened after.  When I was studying in Nanjing in the fall of 1989, I had a Chinese roommate who I thought seemed very buttoned-down and not political.  But every weekend she had to do manual labor as punishment for her participation in the student movement.

Being a selfish college student, I was put out about it, because that meant I had no one to practice Chinese with on the weekend.  I complained to her about it, saying they should have paired us with students who didn’t participate in the movement so we’d have more time with them.  And she just looked at me and said, “Nobody didn’t participate.  Everyone participated.”  I think that was true for a lot of universities. And now it’s interesting to see what’s happened to that cohort of college grads. Many who stayed in China are now very successful and much more politically conservative than they were then.

Couillard: At what point did you become interested in Chinese politics?

Prof Gallagher: Somehow I knew I wanted to be a political science major when I first started college.  And that class on Marxism in the beginning of college drove me into China.  When I came back from China in 1989, there were lots of interesting things happening – the Berlin Wall had just come down (which I didn’t find out about until a month later), and the Soviet Union was falling apart.  I came home in December of ’89 and I remember on the cover of the New York Times was the picture of Ceaușescu and his wife in Romania who had been executed.  In the midst of all this going on, I decided to write an honors’ thesis, and the process of doing research convinced me that academic work was for me.

Couillard: How did you get to your current area of focus right now?

Prof Gallagher: I did my senior honors’ thesis on student movements, and I compared the May 4th Movement in 1919 to the 1989 movement, looking at images and the signs students used, how they invoked past student movements.  So I was already interested in state-society relations – how people put pressure on the state.

I think I just got lucky; when I started looking for a dissertation topic is when China had just started drafting its first labor law.  At that point I felt I’d had enough of student movements and decided to switch to studying workers.  This turned out to be a good professional move, as there were very few, if any, consequential student movements after 1989.  

Couillard: One thing I’m curious about – in order for you to get to where you are today must have taken a tremendous amount of effort and perseverance.  What do you think drives you to work so hard?

Prof Gallagher: At the end of my undergrad I was considering some different career options.  I had interviewed for a position as an executive-in-training for a bank in New York City.  A couple things happened there that changed how I thought about work.  The interview was very intense, and one of the interviewers, a middle-aged man, said to me, “Did you know that in banking women don’t wear pants?” Because I was wearing pants.

I was so horrified and shocked that a woman wearing pants in 1990 in New York City was somehow not acceptable.  The second thing that happened was a discussion with my advisor. He said to me, “If you have a job like working at a bank, at the end of the day you can leave it behind and forget about it.  But if you become an academic, it’s more like a vocation.  Your job is your life.”  

That was somehow attractive to me.  I wanted to have a job I was passionate about.  I also wanted to have a job where no one told me what to wear.  So I’ve got the best of both worlds.

Couillard:  Work all the time, yayyy!  Haha.  So what drives your passion?  Is there some kind of impact you’re hoping your research will contribute to?

Prof Gallagher: I think China and the US have this incredibly important relationship that has consequences for the whole world.  And I don’t think Americans have a very good understanding of China.  I hope my research can contribute to a deepening of understanding on the American side.

Couillard: You just came out with a new book – can you tell me about it?

To be continued in Part II!  Stay tuned for the second half of the interview, where Prof Gallagher tells us about her new book Authoritarian Legality in China as well as her thoughts on the 19th Party Congress