Trey McArver is a London-based consultant for firms and investors engaged in China and the region. He is also the creator of China Politics Weekly, which aims to keep business leaders, investors, diplomats, and scholars abreast of the latest developments in Chinese politics. We spoke to him about CPW and the challenges of covering elite politics in China.
Tell us the story of how CPW got started. What is the relationship between CPW and your work as a consultant?
For years, as a government relations consultant in Beijing I had always wanted a publication that tracked what China’s leaders were doing, and I was always surprised that no such publication existed. In January 2014 I left my old job and moved to London to work independently. This afforded me more time to work on personal projects, and I started doing CPW for fun.
I think of CPW as separate from my consulting work. It is more of a hobby, though it definitely informs the work that I do as a consultant. Most of the work that I do for clients involves analyzing China’s political economy, and the monitoring and research that I do for CPW certainly helps me stay abreast of policy and regulatory trends in China.
What do you hope to achieve with it? What’s next for CPW?
I am currently working with a developer to turn CPW into an online, easy-to-use database that collects and organizes the activities of China’s top leaders. The database will allow users to search and extract data on leaders’ activities across several parameters, including time, place and issue area. It will also serve as a repository for official speeches and statements.
The developer and I are finalizing details of the structure and interface. Once we have those finished, I will put together a proposal and am hoping to find a think tank or university that would be willing to fund the development and maintenance costs of the site.
To stay on top of the news yourself, what are your “must-read” sources? What trends are you most closely following now?
For CPW, the majority of the information comes from official government and party websites and media. I also read the Sinocism newsletter for a good overview of the day’s important news. In addition I subscribe to several other mailing lists and information services that I try to review on a regular basis. I am continually building my own personal database of resources for all aspects of China that I use to direct my research when I have a project in a specific area that I may not follow on a daily basis.
In addition, I usually have several conversations a week with friends or associates in China and around the world that help me to stay abreast of developments in certain areas.
As far as trends that I follow, there are few broad themes that I am always looking at. First is how the anti-corruption campaign is playing out and to what extent it is becoming institutionalized. Second, is implementation of the economic reform agenda; in this area the key things I track are pricing reforms, fiscal reforms, SOE reforms, business registration reforms and financial sector reforms among others. The third thing I am looking at is the evolution of China’s foreign policy and its attitude to the current international system.
What are the major challenges covering elite politics in China?
The opacity. I am continually amazed at what a good job the party does at information control. I—and a lot of my colleagues—spend a lot of time trying to understand the dynamics of power in China. On the whole, I think we do a good job, but none of us really know what happens at the highest levels of power in China. One hears snippets and rumors, but these never come from trustworthy sources. At the end of the day, I know more about Obama’s (famously insular) inner circle than I do about Xi’s relationship with Ding Xuexiang or Wang Huning, despite the fact that I spend all my time trying to understand what goes on in Zhongnanhai.
Has anything surprised you while following these issues or running CPW?
I have been impressed by the seriousness and energy with which the Xi administration has addressed the many difficult policy challenges facing China. It is still early days, but so far they have made more progress on some of the larger structural reforms than I would have anticipated two years ago.
What advice would you give to young people interested in entering into the world of China politics analysis?
First, you need to learn Chinese. Second, you should spend as much time as possible in China. Third, I think it is very helpful to spend time outside of Beijing and Shanghai; in the same way that you can never understand American politics if you only live in New York, I think it’s difficult to understand China and Chinese politics if you are only ever in tier-one cities.
Be on the lookout for a YCW-CPW collaboration in the new year!
Interview by Zoe Grueskin