Review Essay: What Happened to the Study of China in Comparative Politics?

By Reny, Marie-Eve | Journal of East Asian Studies, January-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Review Essay: What Happened to the Study of China in Comparative Politics?


Reny, Marie-Eve, Journal of East Asian Studies


In 1986, Kenneth Lieberthal observed that the study of China in the United States had had little effect on the evolution of political science. Over twenty years later, its impact on the core debates in comparative politics seems to have been no more significant. Why have some of the most influential books in the study of contemporary Chinese politics not been significant in the discipline of comparative politics? Based on a quantitative overview of forty-two comparative politics syllabi, my argument is twofold. First, China scholarship has isolated the study of Chinese politics by primarily publishing in area journals, building analyses around debates exclusive to Chinese politics, and generating knowledge with limited contemplation of its potential for generalization outside China. Second, comparative politics seems to have been caught in a "democratic prism," which has impeded scholars' ability to adapt some of the debates to empirical changes associated with China's rise and development. KEYWORDS: China studies, comparative politics

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IN 1986, KENNETH LIEBERTHAL PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE IN PS: POLITICAL Science and Politics that started from the observation that the study of China in the United States had had little effect on the evolution of political science. Years later, the impact of China studies on the core debates in comparative politics seems to have been no more significant. This prima facie strikes one as surprising in light of Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol's (2002) claim that one of the goals of comparative politics is to address big, substantive questions about politics at different points of world history. China has been undergoing dramatic internal changes in its society and economy in the past thirty years, and this has had significant political implications domestically and internationally. China's rapid rise as an economic power and increasing political influence have impacted all countries' domestic and foreign policies, directly or indirectly. Yet, despite the significance of China's development for world politics, the scholarship that emerged about this process of transformation had remarkably little effect on the dominant debates in the discipline of comparative politics. Why have some of the most influential books in the study of contemporary Chinese politics not been significant in comparative politics? Moreover, how has the low "visibility" of China studies impacted our understanding of the discipline?

Many of us would emphasize the field's eurocentrism and post-1950s US hegemony as the main factors behind the lack of influence of China-derived findings. However, such an assumption may only be true to some extent given the importance that the studies of Latin American, African, and post-Soviet societies had on the emergence and evolution of several core subliteratures in comparative politics. (1) This also suggests that area studies do not necessarily come at the expense of "cross-fertilization with theoretically relevant scholarship ... in the discipline," as originally suggested by Kenneth Lieberthal (1986, 71), among others. In a similar vein, some scholars may be tempted to explain the importance given to the study of areas other than China as resulting from historical geostrategic incentives on the part of Western powers. Accordingly, colonial legacies and the interest of the West to follow closely the politics of former colonies have made the study of Latin American and African contexts prominent since the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the Cold War allowed for the development of an influential epistemic community on the Soviet Union in the United States and Europe, which may have positively impacted the visibility of studies of post-Soviet states after 1989. (2) While this argument is appealing, it does not explain why in light of changes in geopolitical dynamics due to China's economic and political rise, and despite a numerously significant and growing community of China experts in comparative politics and in emerging political economy studies, China as an empirical terrain is not more acknowledged in the discipline. …

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