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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.

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). (2016-2019). The leading scientists in this research endeavor are Prof. Dr. Tho­mas Hebe­rer of the University of Duisburg-Essen and Prof. Dr. Bri­gitte Geis­sel of  Goethe University Frank­furt, as well as Prof. Yves Sin­to­mer of the Centre de Recher­ches Socio­lo­gi­ques et Poli­ti­ques de Paris (CRESPPA) and Prof. Dr. Sté­pha­nie Tawa Lama-Rewal of the Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CNRS-EHESS) Paris.
Description and Outcome
  1. Identifying, analyzing and comparing new representative claims beyond election (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India)

This project was born from the observation that political representation is in crisis across the continents, a fact that takes different forms depending on the context. The CLAIMS group research has aimed to address this almost universal phenomenon, by comparing the global North and the global South, young and old democracies, but also democracies and an authoritarian regime. We had a double premise: (a) beyond elections, political representation takes multiple forms, claims to have very diverse constituencies and  contributes  to construct  them;  (b) although “classic” political representation in the Western world is in crisis, we are witnessing a multiplication of “representative claims”  (Saward  2006)  unfolding  in  new  social  spheres,  carried  by  non-electoral  actors,  serving  various  causes. Our first research objective was then to identify, categorize and compare these representative claims through a series of case studies in our five countries. On the basis of this empirical research, our second objective was to evaluate the heuristic interest of the concept of representative claim, to give it historical depth and more broadly to favor a new conceptualization of political representation.

  1. Analyzing discourses and practices at the national and local levels from a comparative perspective

Representative claims are expressed through speeches but also practices; some exist at the local level, others at the national level. We have therefore chosen to focus our analysis, in each of the five countries, on two types of object: (1) the most significant national debates, as expressed in parliaments, in other official bodies and in the (classic or social)media; and (2) participatory devices at the subnational level and of new social classes (such as private entrepreneurs in China). This choice led us to use several qualitative methods: direct observation of participatory devices, analysis of video footage, interviews, analysis of debates in the digital public sphere. In order to facilitate the comparison of the various data collected in our fieldwork, we developed a common code book allowing an analysis of the texts of our corpus with the ATLAS.TI software (after internal training in the use of the software).

  1. Research objectives of the Duisburg team

Guided by the framework of the CLAIMs project, the Duisburg team set three main research objectives. We aimed to identify (1) how the concept of political representation is perceived and manifested; (2) if and how actors make representative claims; (3) how the new ICTs alter traditional representative patterns in China.

  • The reconsideration of applicability of the “claims” perspective to the Chinese context. First, during our field work in China it has become quickly apparent that the term “political representation” in our interviewees’ perception was strongly connected to the formal political institutions such as people’s congresses, party and government agencies. We therefore had to adjust the core terminology at use from “representation” to “interest expression”. This appropriation brought clarity to our conceptualization of political representation and allowed us to unseal a rich array of informal representative patterns in the Chinese context.
  • We also accounted some difficulties in applying Saward’s CLAIM analytical. Representative claims, under the condition of tightening censorship in China, as we found out in our analysis, were often incomplete (as according to the Saward’s model) and very often implicit. Various actors, in order to bypass the censorship, applied various techniques for expressing and discussing their interests. Sometimes, interest expression occurred without obvious representative claim-making.
  • The focus on digitalization of political representation. We also paid significant attention to interest expression enabled by social media in China. We examined how individual and group interests are expressed by entrepreneurs, bloggers and people’s congress deputies. We subsequently proposed a concept of online connective representation. Additionally, we analyzed the dynamics of the representative claim-making by the Chinese Communist Party due to the fast proliferation of the new information and communication technologies.

Main outcome (Duisburg team)

During the CLAIMS project, the Duisburg research team paid specific attention to (1) contribution to theoretical, conceptual, and methodological developments built upon empirical case studies; (2) close cooperation with other project team members and to presentation of our research results to the readership in and beyond Europe.

(1) Theoretical contribution

As a group in collaboration with other participant researchers we made several important theoretical, conceptual and methodological observations that were presented in our publications. Specifically, the Duisburg team made two key contributions to the theory of political representation. Firstly, we proposed a classification of political representation in an authoritarian context. Secondly, focusing on digitalization of political representation, we offered a new concept of connective representation.

  1. a) Proposing a new analytical perspective: typology of political presentation in authoritarian systems

In the academic literature, the concept of political representation is primarily related to mechanisms of representation in a democratic setting, used in a rather technical or normative sense and concerned with institutionalized representation in legislatures and parliaments, with a strong focus on elections by which citizens express their political will. Widely lacking in the scholarly literature are approaches which explain the nature of political representation in a non-democratic setting. Thus, patterns of formal and informal representation in an authoritarian context have constituted a ‘black hole’ in the literature on representation.

In our research we persistently argued that in China, as elsewhere, there are vibrant mechanisms of representation, albeit strongly monitored by the hegemony of the party-state which attempts to incorporate them into its political mainstream and institutions. Currently these mechanisms are not directed towards changing the system but are embedded in the political system. We demonstrated that in a non-democratic setting, representation takes different forms compared to democratic systems. We proposed a typology of political representation that includes five types such as formal, informal, symbolic, traditional, and connective.

We paid specific attention to the informal patterns of representation and found that informal mechanisms as response to party hegemony are frequent and as a rule less coordinated, and usually take a form of what James C. Scott called ‘everyday forms of representation’. Even individual acts implying a ‘we intention’ can be viewed as an informal mode of this kind of everyday representation, particularly due to their ‘large number effect’.

Furthermore, we argued that traditional and personalized types resulting from China’s traditional political culture continue to have a major impact on the perception of representation in the Chinese polity and society. In particular, we showcased how the party-state is using symbolic patterns of representation to shape political identity and reinforce its political legitimacy.

At the same time, however, as we also demonstrated, ‘digital representation’ has emerged as a vigorous form of new patterns of representation via the cyberspace, spawning new and innovative modes of formal, informal and symbolic political representation.

  1. b) Proposing a methodological toolkit for analyzing online representation

 Building upon our analytical perspective and the recent research on digital political communication and representation, we proposed a methodological toolkit for analyzing online political representation in the context of the Chinese social media. We proposed everydayness, connectivity, interactivity and individualization as four distinctive features of e-representation. Everydayness of e-representation refers to the daily online activeness. In other words, a representative should be present online, e.g. create content, publish posts and react to comments on daily bases and not only occasionally. In the online environment where tons of information being constantly circulated and users must compete for readership views. Therefore, maintaining daily presence is essential to the users’ surviving ability. Connectivity implies the connectedness of a representative to other users. Connectivity level can be measured by the number of general followers or followers and the number of re-posts of blogger’s original content by netizens. Interactivity is understood as a direct online dialog between representative and public in forms of comments and private messages; and indirect ways of interaction such as likes and re-posts. Finally, individualization implies to the fact that there is no a fixed and unified format of blogging and pc deputies are free to choose and even create their own individual styles of online expression. Thus, online claim-making is highly individualized. Finally, in the analysis of the interest expression on the Chinese social media it is also crucial to account for increasing online censorship by the party-state. Particularly in recent years, online expression has become constrained and limited due to the tightening control by the authorities in China. We demonstrated how sophisticated mechanisms of censorship have a direct impact on e-representation.

  1. c) Developing a new conceptual framework: the concept of “connective representation”

We argued in our research that new forms of political representation have emerged in the Chinese online space. At the heart of our argument we placed the concept of connective representation. We define connective representation as self-representation by means of online connectivity. Specifically, it is rotating expression of collective interests, opinions, ideas, and sentiments by separate individuals or groups who are interconnected in digital networks through shared online platforms. We used the case study of China’s private entrepreneurs to exemplify the concept of connective representation. Our findings have several implications for our understanding of entrepreneurial in-group dynamics, political representation in China, and the theory of political representation.

First, connective representation supports the argument that entrepreneurs share a common identity and act as a strategic group. Connective representation demonstrates how, through connectivity, PEs enhance their in-group identity and individually act in the interests of the group. Similarly, entrepreneurs strategically engage in online communication with the general public to push forward certain discourses that advance the entrepreneurial group’s interests. Stronger public support makes PEs’ online voice stronger. A stronger voice increases the chances of being heard by the authorities and sparking a reaction from them.

The second point we demonstrated about the in-group dynamics is that online connectivity allows any individual entrepreneur to act as a representative spontaneously and on their own initiative. This dynamic is significantly different from the offline, strictly hierarchical in-group structure. It opens up new possibilities for any individual entrepreneur to act as a group representative regardless of their status and prestige within the group. It is access to the shared information and approval of other members that enables individuals to speak to the authorities in the interest of the group. Successful communication with the authorities can subsequently improve an individual’s image and standing within the peer group.

Connective representation challenges our conventional understanding of political representation in China. We identified two main distinctive features of online connective representation: the role of individual entrepreneurs and the role of the public. For decades, in authoritarian China, political representation has been structured and controlled by the party-state. Access to representation has been granted based on one’s status in the party-state hierarchy. In contrast, cyberspace provides an opportunity to break through hierarchical constraints and enables individuals to speak for themselves as well as for their groups. We thus observe new individualized patterns of political representation by means of online connectivity in the authoritarian context of China.

The concept of connective representation also contributes to the general theory of political representation. In particular, connective representation uncovered a new representative–represented dynamic. In the online environment, where spatial boundaries do not exist, there is little need to make someone present, because everyone is present. Moreover, such an environment encourages and enables individuals to speak for themselves, bypassing the conventional mandate relationship that exists offline. We find that individual PEs speak for the interests of their peer group; by doing so, they take up the role of group representatives. However, representatives emerge spontaneously, without any selection, election, or appointment (as in mandate representation). They become representatives by individual choice.

Furthermore, through connectivity several individuals can act as representatives simultaneously, creating a mobilizing effect. This suggests that representation should not be understood merely as Hanna Pitkin’s famous “making present again,” with an emphasis on “again” (Pitkin 1972); as Lisa Disch (2011) suggests, representation can also be read as [active repetition of “making present”] that brings out the mobilizing aspect of representation. By repetitively approaching the party-state in rotation and voicing individual opinions, PEs create a mobilizing effect that eventually benefits the group. This also creates a dynamic in which one individual entrepreneur simultaneously acts as representative and represented. This suggests that in cyberspace, the roles of representative and represented are not fixed but blurred, and can be swapped around flexibly.

Fieldwork

The research was based on extensive fieldwork (semi-structured interviews with academics, bloggers, entrepreneurs, IT firms (Tencent), People’s Congress deputies, members of the Chinese People‘s Political Consultative Conferences, chambers of industry and commerce, local officials, entrepreneurial associations, internet experts, etc.), altogether in 23 cities and counties in eleven provinces in North, Central, East, Southeast and Southwest China. Academics from Universities in Peking, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, Zhengzhou, Xichang, Wuhan and Qingdao supported us in organizing fieldwork.

Previous Research Projects

Thomas Heberer and Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen): Local governance in China: The Interaction of two Strategic Groups – local cadres and private entrepreneurs funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (until 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) between 2010 and 2016, and in cooperation with Prof. B. Alpermann (Würzburg) and Prof. H. Holbig (Frankfurt and Hamburg).

Thomas Heberer and Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen): Local governance in China: The Interaction of two Strategic Groups – local cadres and private entrepreneurs funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (until 2016)

Thomas Heberer and Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen): Local governance in China: The Interaction of two Strategic Groups – local cadres and private entrepreneurs funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (until 2016) This project was part of the competence network “Governance in China: Prerequisites, Constraints and Potentials for Political Adaption and Innovation...

Politics and Autonomy in the Local State – County and Township Cadres as Strategic Actors in the Chinese Reform Process [2009-2014]

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.

Administrative Reforms in Germany and China in Comparison [3]: Environmental administration in the rural areas [2008-2012]

Prof. Dr. Dieter Grunow and Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Collaboration with Prof. Dr. Yu Keping, China Center of Comparative Economics and Politics - A Policy Advisory Project

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

The follow-up project intends 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 will be conducted.

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

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) and Prof. Dr. Gunter Schubert (University of Tuebingen). Whereas Schubert has focused on rural areas, 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]

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.

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