Dong Lisheng - new Professor of Asian Politics at UT | University of Tartu Asian Center

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Dong Lisheng - new Professor of Asian Politics at UT

Prof. Dong Lisheng is the new Professor of Asian Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. He just began his five-year term at the university. With this interview we seek to get to know the professor better and introduce him to the university's community. 

You have been in Tartu for three months now. What are your first impressions? What has been most challenging?

The University of Tartu is a higher education institution with rich history in Europe. I got a taste of it when I took part in the opening ceremony for the new academic year. The ratio of 10 per cent international faculty members, as the Rector told us, makes it an international university today.

The quiet environment and convenient facilities convince me that this is an ideal venue for teaching and research. Immediately after I received my residence permit, I found the stage Estonia enjoys in the age of IT: not only the university, but also the Estonian government has realized paperless office.

I have visited many Western Europe countries, but feel that I might need longer time than expected to adapt to the local life here. Compared to other countries, my first impression from dealings with local people is that things take longer time to get done here.

What made you decide to apply for the professorship here?

At the time I learned of this job opening, I had already made plans for the near future: working as a visiting professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany for six months, to be followed by two years at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. What motivated me to apply was the challenge this newly-created position of Professor of Asian Politics brought about, namely, participating in designing and launching the new MA programme on Asian studies in Estonia. The UT’s long history, world-class faculty and internationalized student body inspire my efforts at creating a prominent profile of Asian politics of the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies in North-Eastern Europe and beyond. The need at a time of such uncertainty for closer ties and understanding between Estonia/EU and China spurs me to make the best use of the most precious resource, all UT faculty members and students related to and interested in Asian studies.

One of my main research interests is comparative politics. With experiences of short- and long-term stays in many West European countries, I am particularly interested in learning more about the transition countries like Estonia.

Please tell me about your research. What have you worked on and what interests you the most?

Before taking up my appointment at the UT, I had worked at the University of Glasgow for two years. There I implemented the project Direct Township Elections in China: Political Dynamics and Governance Outcomes, supported by the EU’s Marie Curie Actions-International Incoming Fellowship. In the recent decade, I have published a series of articles analyzing China’s public policies relating to people’s livelihood such as housing, healthcare, education and migrant workers (peasant-workers). I am the co-recipient of the Pierre de Celles Award for the best paper titled “Imitating the West? – A Survey of Chinese Civil Servants on Public Sector Reform” by the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Administration in 2012.

From 2009 to 2012, I headed three Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) research groups simultaneously implementing: (1) the EU’s FP7 project “Chinese Views of EU: Disaggregating Chinese Perceptions of the EU and the Implications for the EU’s China Policy” (as part of a €1.42-million consortium; concluded in February 2012; the English book was published by Routledge and the Chinese book by Press of Social Sciences of China in 2013; I am the first editor of both); (2) a CASS major research project on e-governance in the developed countries to present recommendations to the Chinese government (book published in May 2012); and (3) a joint project with the Human Sciences Research Council of the South Africa on “The Role of Infrastructure and Service Delivery: Lessons Learned From Good Practice Municipalities In South Africa and China” (fruitfully concluded in May 2012).

To date, my main publications include 20 books and 48 referred articles and contributions to 20 books. For example, I have conducted research on the Asian integration from the perspective of the EU’s model as can be shown by my co-edited book titled EU’s Experience in Integration: A Model for ASEAN + 3?My latest monograph is titled Public Administration Theories: Instrumental and Value Rationalities. I am the co-editor of Urban Mobilization and the New Media in Contemporary China and China and the European Union.

What are you working on currently?

I am currently carrying out several projects. The first is on the joint effort against the yellow sand storm and smog by China, Japan, Mongolian Republic and South Korea. To date, the questionnaire has been designed and its administrators have been recruited from two universities in Beijing, who have access to students from the four countries.

The second is on the metropolitanization in China. In 2002, I was invited by Prof. Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, President of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France to join the International Metropolitan Observatory (IMO) research programme. The IMO has been designated as a priority research activity of the Research Committee Comparative Studies on Local Government and Politics (RC5) of the International Political Science Association. In cooperation with Prof. Daniel Kübler of the University of Zurich, we organized two international conferences on the topic in Zurich in 2011 and in Beijing in the following year. We presented a paper in 2015 at an international conference organized by Fudan University, Shanghai and are presently finalizing the article for an international journal.

The third project is to further tap into the dataset I collected for the project on Direct Township Elections in China. I have published two articles in Chinese and will publish another one in English in the Journal of Contemporary China. These articles are based on the datasets of 600 and 900 questionnaires of the Chinese rural residents. By December 2016, I upgraded the dataset to 1500 questionnaires. I will be writing another two or three articles using the dataset.

As a full-time professor you will also be supervising theses. What are the topics that students could approach you with?

I will gladly supervise any Master’s and PhD students with theses on the Asian politics in general and the Chinese politics and government in particular. Students who compare China and Europe are equally welcome. The specific topics may include: comparative public policy and administrative reforms; civil service systems, democratization and party politics, EU and China's mutual perceptions, metropolitan politics and governance, central-local relations, and local governance.

The 19th National People’s Congress just concluded last week. What can we expect from China in the next five years?

Probably the most important decision of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is adding Xi Jinping’s name to the Party’s constitution, elevating him alongside Chairman Mao to the pantheon of the country’s founding giants. The inclusion, along with his guiding philosophy for the nation, cements his place as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. This provides certainty and predictability to China’s domestic and foreign policy for many years to come. The composition of the new ruling core group, the Political Bureau Standing Committee, is a guarantee in terms of organization and implementation. The founder of the People’s Republic Mao Zedong, and the architect of market reforms, Deng Xiaoping, are the only other Chinese leaders to have their names in the document -- and only Mao was alive when his was included. Where Mao united the country and Deng Xiaoping made it rich, Xi intends to make it strong. The week-long congress at its conclusion on Oct. 24 approved the constitutional amendment to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

When he opened the gathering on Oct. 18, Xi declared that China had entered a “new era” with the ambitious goal of becoming a “global leader” by mid-century. His bold vision comes as he has sought to portray himself as a responsible global leader while President Donald Trump trumpets a nationalist “America First” policy and the European Union grapples with Britain’s exit from its club of nations. Xi's "new era" philosophy seeks to establish a China that plays a rule-setting role in global affairs. This may have a great impact on international politics.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time (in Tartu)?

At University of Glasgow I went to the university's sport's Centre for swimming two or three times a week. Here in Tartu, I still need to find a suitable club with a swimming pool.  In Glasgow, as I did not have TV set, I also listened to classic music evereday. Here I watch BBC documentaries during the weekend. I also enjoy taking long walks during the weekends.

Looking forward, what are your own expectations for the next five years in Tartu?

I hope that the MA programme on Asian Studies will be successfully launched and becomes sustainable, for which I will contribute to the extent possible. Meantime, I expect to see my plan to apply for outside funding, especially from Europe, to be executed with a good result.