The year was 1971. As the United States and China started to normalize relations, PhD student Susan Shirk was one of the first Western visitors to China. After studying abroad in Japan during high school, Shirk had become determined to discover more about East Asia; for so long, its culture and history had largely remained mysteries in the US.
Today, as Professor Shirk remarks on the state of China studies, she tells me that the situations then and now are like “night and day.”
A leading expert on China’s political system, Shirk has spent almost 30 years teaching students at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. Her class, “Chinese Politics,” stands out as one of the university’s most well regarded courses on China. When I ask Shirk about what she tries to do differently with her course, she responds: “I try to teach Chinese politics much as you would teach the political institutions of other political systems. We use ‘the microeconomics of political institutions’ to map out authority relations and make sense of the policymaking process.”
In our conversation, Shirk notes that we face limits in our understanding of elite politics in China. Researchers find that Chinese elite politics can still be a black box about which they may only make guesses through rumor – even acquiring information through interviews and other means can be quite difficult.
But beyond the instruction aspect of teaching, Shirk finds much enjoyment from mentoring and getting to know her students. “I find it personally rewarding to give advice about everything, from potential career paths to child rearing, and I love hearing about a student’s own journey,” says Shirk. She also comments that because many of her students are from China, she treasures the opportunity to provide Chinese students with insights about their own political system. She hopes that her course material will allow her students to not only gain traction intellectually, but also to understand strategies for how to influence Chinese policymaking.
While on the topic of politics, I ask Shirk about her time as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. She states that as an academic, she was excited by the rare opportunity to help create history rather than merely studying it. “I’d like to think that our administration made some good progress by putting a floor under US-China relations,” remarks Shirk. “China made some major concessions and took major steps forward to build the relationship too – such as when China negotiated to join the WTO.”
For those interested in US-China relations, Shirk has a few pieces of advice. She cites how the language abilities of today’s youth dwarf her own generation’s, and she encourages students to continue to follow such trends. She also recommends supplementing one’s academic knowledge with on-the-ground experiences; professional work in Chinese firms and NGOs provides much different pictures of China than a course on China.
The future, Shirk predicts, is thus quite bright for those wishing to study China. “China changes so much over time that people will never be bored. New intellectual puzzles will always emerge.”
Erwin Li is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.