Research Projects

Senior Professorship for Politics and Society in China – Thomas Heberer

The main research activities of the Chair refer to the political system, political culture and society of China. In recent years, the focus lies on political, institutional, and social change; local governance; participation and elections; agents of change and strategic groups (entrepreneurs, farmers, ethnic minorities, etc.); political culture; nationality policy; social deviation and corruption; political and connective representation; social disciplining and civilizing processes.

Current Research Project

The Economic and Social Significance of the “New Silk Road” for the City of Duisburg, the Ruhr Area and the State of NRW

Socio-political-economic accompanying research (2021–2024)

(Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer together with Prof. Dr. Nele Noesselt and Prof. Dr. Markus Taube)

Funded by: Ministry of Economics of North Rhine-Westphalia, Duisburg city government, Sparkassen Foundation, and other organizations


Previous Research Projects

(New) Political Representative Claims: A Global View – France, Germany, Brazil, China, India (2016–2020)

A French-German Joint Cooperation Project sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the French L’Agence Nationale De La Recherche (ANR), 2016–2020. The leading scientists in this research endeavor were: Prof. Thomas Heberer (University of Duisburg-Essen) and Prof. Brigitte Geißel (Goethe University Frankfurt) as well as Prof. Yves Sintomer (Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris, CRESPPA) and Prof. Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal (Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, CNRS-EHESS, Paris).
Dr. Anna Shpakovskaya (Postdoc, IN-EAST) contributed significantly to the success of the project on the Duisburg side.

Europe currently experiences a crisis of established forms of political representation, visible for example in increasing political distrust. Various claims to renew political representation are emerging all over the world. However, most contemporary research on representation focuses on electoral/mandate representation within single countries. As a result, we lack a comparative, global analysis of (new) representative claims developed outside the representative political system; and dynamics developing in the Global South, including non-democratic entities, are neglected by Western scholars. Our research intends to address these gaps by putting into perspective representative claims in France and Germany – two leading democracies in Europe actively experimenting with new concepts of representation –, and in three BRICS states: Brazil – the largest democracy in Latin America with innovative participatory devices including competing representative claims –, India – the world’s largest democracy and a pioneer in electoral quotas (as a claim for descriptive representation) – and China – a non-democratic regime engaged in a huge transformation with specific representative claims.

Building on German and French political theory, our conceptual framework departs from standard ways of considering political representation in the context of electoral and mandate claims (e.g. Pitkin). We argue that while mandate representation remains important, it fails to account for crucial contemporary developments. Our premise is that political representation is increasingly related to the (re)emergence of new representative claims, i.e. situations in which an actor claims to speak/act in the name of others. Such claims are most often based on the denunciation of misrepresentation, which they pretend to correct. However, in spite of the increasing variety of representative claims around the world, a comprehensive conceptual framework and a typology allowing a deeper understanding of these claims are missing and we will address this conceptual gap.

In the five countries under scrutiny, we will identify different situations in which (seemingly) new representative claims are raised, criticized or justified. Proceeding through a carefully designed common methodological framework, our research will pursue the objective of analyzing developments of representative claims from a global, transnational perspective. To reach this objective we focus on two research fields. We analyze: (i) representative claims at the national level (national parliaments and media) raised during three national debates in each country; (ii) representative claims raised in three participatory devices at the subnational level in each country. At both levels representative claims are justified with alleged misrepresentation of certain groups/individuals within the given representative bodies. We will rest on qualitative methods for data collection and apply the adjusted Representative Claim Analysis for data analyses. To scale up our findings, we will follow the “case-thinking” approach, identify patterns of representative claims, develop a typology which can be applied for “terminological, classificatory and heuristic means’ (Weber 1921), and theorize the findings in the context of modern democratic theory.


Local Governance in China: The Interaction of two Strategic Groups – Local Cadres and Private Entrepreneurs (2009–2016)

This project was part of the competence network Governance in China: Prerequisites, Constraints and Potentials for Political Adaption and Innovation Capacity in the 21st Century, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The entire project was conducted by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer together with Prof. Dr. Björn Alpermann (Würzburg), Prof. Dr. Sebastian Heilmann (Trier, first phase only), Prof. Dr. Heike Holbig (Frankfurt und Hamburg) and Prof. Dr. Gunter Schubert (Tübingen).

Since 2014, the focus of the sub-project conducted by Thomas Heberer und Gunter Schubert has been shifted to the interaction between private entrepreneurs and local governments, and the organizational behavior and policy impact of entrepreneurs as a “strategic group”. Working at the lower tiers of the Chinese state, i.e., foremost at county, township and village level, we have found it most useful in our efforts to understand the local policy process, or ‘how things are getting done’ in China, to adhere to the concept of local developmentalism. We combine this, however, with ‘strategic group’ analysis to grasp the internal dynamics of the local developmental state, most notably the interaction between local governments and private entrepreneurs since the early 2000s and, particularly, in the aftermath of the 2008 outbreak of the global financial crisis. Based on preliminary fieldwork conducted in 14 cities or county-level entities in the provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hubei, Jilin, Hainan, Beijing and Guangdong respectively, this sub-project had three objectives, i.e.,

  • to investigate to what extent the local developmental state of today differs from its early counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s, most importantly the local corporatist state, a specific variant of the developmental type, so aptly described in the work of Jean Oi and others;
  • to investigate if state-business relations in today’s local state which show signs of change when compared to the findings of the earlier literature on the ‘corporatist, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘clientelist’ or ‘predatory’ state observed in the 1990s;
  • to investigate the interaction between leading local cadres at county and township level and private entrepreneurs.

We argued that the relationship between local governments and private entrepreneurs has evolved over the past decade or so to become more horizontal than it has been in the early days of local developmentalism, meaning that private entrepreneurs have arguably gained more autonomy from local governments as market competition has increased and market institutions have matured. Local governments not only face rising difficulties in securing sound private sector development in times of global financial stress and structural change in the Chinese economy, but also in steering private entrepreneurship the way they did in former times. ‘Traditional’ local state corporatism and entrepreneurialism have given way to ‘service-oriented government’, with local governments in the more developed parts of China becoming ‘inhibited’ developmental states in the sense that they are increasingly bound to private entrepreneurs in a relationship of mutual dependency to make ends meet. The latter, for their part, are in a state of flux, slowly accumulating strategic power to keep the local state at bay and exert pressure on local governments. Though not yet recognizable, private entrepreneurs in China are a strategic group ‘in the making’, i.e., a potential strategic group. Even if they act collectively only in an uncoordinated way, their overarching interests and rational behavior gradually change the dynamics of local politics in contemporary China, resulting in a realignment of local government-business relations that may become the hallmark of a new era of ‘Chinese capitalism’ and, arguably, strengthen the political system’s adaptive capacity.


Politics and Autonomy in the Local State – County and Township Cadres as Strategic Actors in the Chinese Reform Process (2009–2014)

Joint project of Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer and Prof. Dr. Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen) (2009–12/2014), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Any substantial assessment of China’s state capacity cannot be undertaken without a careful analysis of the local state. County and township cadres are of utmost importance here – a fact which has rarely been researched so far. They have a high degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the central state und are the decisive actors concerning the implementation of China’s agricultural policies and the government’s efforts to reform the system of rural finance. It is the local cadres who decide about the central state’s success to maintain social stability and regime loyalty among China’s peasants. What kind of rationality do local cadres follow when they carry out central policies? To what extent do they develop a collective identity that makes them a self-conscious strategic group in China’s political system, and how does this impact on state capacity and regime legitimacy? The project intends to find answers to this question by a systematic analysis of the implementation of the “Construction of a new countryside” comparing different counties and townships. By that, it makes an important contribution to the understanding of political development in contemporary China. The project has been extended by the DFG until the end of 2014.

Field rese­arch wit­hin this pro­ject was con­duc­ted by Tho­mas Hebe­rer and René Trap­pel in 2008 and in 2009 in two coun­ties: Laixi (Shan­dong) and Sui­ning (Sichuan) and in 2010 in Mei­tan County and Xifeng County (Guiz­hou Province). Gun­ter Schu­bert and Anna Ahlers conducted field research in Mizhi (Shaanxi), Qin­gyuan (Zhe­jiang), and Jinjiang (Fujian).

Project Description (pdf)


Administrative Reforms in Germany and China in Comparison [3]: Environmental administration in the Rural Areas (2008–2012)

A Policy Advisory Project

Joint project by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, Prof. Dr. Dieter Grunow (University of Duisburg-Essen), and Prof. Dr. Yu Keping (China Center of Comparative Economics and Politics, Beijing), funded by the Franz Haniel Foundation.


Administrative Reforms in Germany and China in Comparison [2]: Decentralised Policies, Environment Policy as a Case Study (2006–2009)

Joint project by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, Prof. Dr. Dieter Grunow (University of Duisburg-Essen), and Prof. Dr. Yu Keping (China Center of Comparative Economics and Politics, Beijing), funded by the Franz Haniel Foundation.

The follow-up project intended to scrutinize local administrative acting (or non-acting) in the domain of environmental issues. A comparison with German policies shall facilitate to learn from the experiences of an advanced country and its underlying concepts. Three case studies in Northeast, East and Central China were conducted.


Administrative Reforms in Germany and China in Comparison [1]: Innovations of Local Administration in China and Germany in Comparison (2005–2007)

Joint project by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, Prof. Dr. Dieter Grunow (University of Duisburg-Essen), and Prof. Dr. Yu Keping (China Center of Comparative Economics and Politics, Beijing), funded by the Franz Haniel Foundation.

This project focused on local administration and encompassed a comparison of administrative reforms both in China and Germany. Two case studies were conducted in each country: one in an urban area and one in a rural township.


Implementation and Political Effects of Village and Urban Inhabitants Elections in China (2002–2007)

This project revolved around the issues of participation, elections, legitimacy, and social stability in rural and urban areas in China. It was jointly conducted by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer (University of Duisburg-Essen), Prof. Dr. Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen), Christian Göbel, and Anja Senz, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Whereas Gunter Schubert has focused on rural areas, Thomas Heberer has concentrated on urban neighbourhood communities.


Why Ideas Matter. The Significance of Ideas and Intellectual Discourses in Politics. China, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam (2000–2004)

Research project conducted by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, Dr. Claudia DerichsKarin AdelsbergerPatrick Raszelenberg, and Dr. Nora Sausmikat, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The vantage point of the research project lead by by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer and Dr. Claudia Derichs was the question of the political dimension of the so-called “Asian crisis”. This “Asian crisis” is by now mostly overcome. Yet the fact remains that debates and discourses on processes of political reform and change in East and Southeast Asia are hardly realized and only marginally recognized in “the West”. This is all the more regrettable because this debate is highly diverse and bears a much stronger dynamic than commonly assumed in the Western discussion. In shaping the politics of change, ideas play an important role. However, this role of ideas in politics and policy making has been somewhat neglected in the social sciences.