Interview with new WEAI member Junyan Jiang

October 13, 2021

The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is excited to welcome Professor Junyan Jiang to the WEAI community.

Junyan Jiang is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. He studies and teaches on topics including elite politics, public opinion, and elite-mass interactions.  His current project uses an original biographical database of over 4,000 officials at multiple levels of government to examine how informal patron-client networks shaped the patterns of political and economic governance in China. More generally, he is interested in developing new methods and data sources to better measure and understand the dynamics of intra-elite interactions in both Chinese and comparative contexts. He has published in outlets such as American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Public Economics, and Journal of Development Economics, among others, and is the recipient of the 2020 Gregory Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. His research was supported by the National Science Foundation from the United States and the Research Grant Council from Hong Kong.

Prior to Columbia, Jiang taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and BA in economics and finance from the University of Hong Kong.

In a recent interview, we spoke with Professor Jiang about his work and current projects. 


Q. First, could you introduce yourself and your background before joining Columbia?

I am currently an assistant professor at the political science department. Before joining Columbia, I worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for three years. I received my PhD from the University of Chicago in 2016 and spent a year at University of Pennsylvania as a postdoctoral fellow.


Q. Tell us about your research interests and what led you to this field of study.

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how power is created, maintained, and passed along in political organizations, as well as the interactions between power elites and ordinary citizens. My work focuses primarily on China but I am also doing some cross-country comparative work using cases from both East Asia and across the globe. Methodologically, I am interested in leveraging computational tools to develop new quantitative measures for theoretically important concepts that may be difficult to capture with conventional methods, such as power, interpersonal relations, and organizational strength.

Many things have driven me to study what I study now, but I guess that, at the most fundamental level, I just wanted to understand the collection of individual actions that leads to the creation of a political order. How do elites resolve their differences and coalesce into a ruling coalition? What makes government decisions responsive to ordinary citizens? What explains citizens’ choices to support certain kinds of regimes but not others? These are the questions that motivated my research.


Q. Can you speak about your current book project? What piqued your interest in the resilience of and corruption within the CCP?

My current book project examines how informal patron-client networks operate in the Chinese government and their potential consequences for governance. A major puzzle about contemporary China is that the political system seems to be reasonably resilient and effective, yet it obviously lacks many formal features and institutions that social scientists consider as essential for durability and good performance. My project makes the case that some of the seemingly “bad” institutions may have actually positive effects on governance because, when the formal institutions are not sufficiently flexible or robust, informal networks can sometimes provide second-best solutions to challenging problems such as policy coordination and information acquisition. In the meantime, however, heavy reliance on informal solutions also inevitably encourages corruption and nepotism. This in part explains why impressive performance and rampant corruption can paradoxically coexist in contemporary China.

When I was in graduate school, I read a lot on the importance of state and bureaucracy in promoting economic development and other major collective tasks. The conventional image of an ideal bureaucracy is usually one with strong Weberian characteristics—impersonal, meritocratic, and professionally run. This Weberian model clearly does not fit with the Chinese reality, but the Chinese system still works reasonably fine. This contradiction puzzled me for many years and prompted me to start this project, first as a dissertation and now as book. My hope is to get a better understanding of the factors that can contribute to effective governance but may be overlooked by the Weberian paradigm.


Q. Can you speak a bit about your past year of research -- challenges and opportunities you faced working through the pandemic?

The pandemic is an unfortunate and major disruption of everyone’s work and life. I stayed in Shanghai for almost an entire year because of the various travel restrictions between China and the U.S. For me, the greatest loss was that the in-person intellectual exchange with my colleagues. Although many of my colleagues in political science and WEAI have reached out to welcome me and we had stimulating conversations about research, I wished that they had happened over coffee or tea rather than in Zoom on a computer monitor! Hopefully, as the pandemic is getting under control, we will have more opportunities to engage in-person, face-to-face interactions on campus.


Q. What are you most looking forward to as a new member of WEAI?

Well, there are many things to be excited about! WEAI has a fabulous group of scholars working on a variety of interesting topics about China and East Asia. I very much look forward to interacting with them on a regular basis and learning about their work. I also know that WEAI provides strong research support to its faculty members and holds great seminars and speaker series. I plan to take full advantage of those opportunities to develop new research agenda and build contacts and collaborations with people outside Columbia.

I would also add that personally, I find it very fortunate to be able to do my work here at Columbia, whose own history has been so deeply intertwined with the modern history of China and East Asia in so many interesting ways. I am thrilled to be part of the community and hope that some of my work will help continue and contribute to that proud tradition.