Jennifer Pan is an Assistant Professor of Communication, and an Assistant Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University. Her research resides at the intersection of political communication and authoritarian politics, showing how authoritarian governments try to control society, how the public responds, and when and why each is successful. Her book, “Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers” (Oxford, 2020) shows how China’s pursuit of political order transformed the country’s main social assistance program, Dibao, for repressive purposes. Her work has appeared in peer reviewed publications such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, and Science.
The following is an interview with Jennifer Pan about a study she co-authored for UC San Diego’s 21st Century China Center, “How Discrimination Increases Chinese Overseas Students’ Support for Authoritarian Rule.” It has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Young China Watchers (YCW): What prompted you and your colleagues to research this topic?
Jennifer Pan (JP): Over the past few years, there have been increasing questions about the role of Chinese nationals attending U.S. universities, and so this particular paper is part of a longer-term project looking at the characteristics and preferences of these students who are in the U.S. and comparing them to Chinese nationals who are at top universities in China.
Even before COVID-19, with changes in immigration policy towards Chinese students, a lot of people that I know have encountered anti-Chinese racism—and that’s only ramped up during COVID-19. So, part of the second motivation for this paper is to try to understand the effect of racism on preferences among these Chinese students towards political reform in China.
YCW: Can you summarize what you and your coauthors found in this study, as well as what was predictable and/or surprising about your findings?
JP: We conducted a survey experiment where we had Chinese students in the U.S. read three types of newspaper and social media comments. The control group read about COVID-19 from a Chinese newspaper and comments from Chinese social media critical of the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19. The first treatment group (Treatment A) read a similar article about COVID-19, but from a U.S. media source, and then commentary from U.S. social media critical of the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic. The second treatment group (Treatment B) read the same article as Treatment A, but instead of seeing only comments critical of the Chinese government, they also saw comments that expressed racist sentiment towards Chinese people, blaming Chinese people for the spread of COVID-19.
“Our respondents were very much able to process criticisms of the Chinese government, and in many cases they agree. But when you have expressions of anti-Chinese racism, that is what prompts this backlash against democratic reform in China.”
What we find is that in Treatment B, racist comments make it much more likely for our respondents to support the Chinese political system as is and to be much less supportive of any sort of change to it, i.e. democratization. That finding is surprising in the context of how it’s racism that leads this result. The reason why we included the first treatment—comments from U.S. social media critical of China—is that, anecdotally, we often hear that if Chinese students in the U.S. hear anything negative about the Chinese regime, they’ll have a nationalist reaction and defend the Chinese government.
But that’s not what we found. Our respondents were very much able to process criticisms of the Chinese government, and in many cases they agree. But when you have expressions of anti-Chinese racism, that is what prompts this backlash against democratic reform in China. It’s the least nationalistic students who are the most affected by the racist comments. We don’t know why that’s the case; it could be that students who are nationalistic might already expect when they come to the U.S. that they’ll be subjected to racism, and that less nationalistic students don’t expect it, and so racism has a larger effect. Or it could just be that students who are highly nationalistic are already so supportive of the Chinese regime that no treatment can change their preferences.
YCW: As mentioned in the paper, studying abroad in a democracy can make people from authoritarian countries more likely to embrace “Western democratic values and norms,” but you and your coauthors suggest that the Chinese students who come to the US are already at least sympathetic to those values. Can you explain how?
JP: This is where we compared the students that we’re surveying who are Chinese nationals in the U.S. versus students who are at the top three universities in China. When we compare these two groups and ask them the same questions, we find that students who come to the U.S. are much less nationalistic, much less supportive of the Chinese government, and more predisposed to support liberal political institutions such as a multi-party system, free press, etc.
The decision for these students of whether they’re going to come to the U.S. or stay in China happens before their junior or senior year in high school. Those who select to try to attend college outside of China instead of preparing for and taking the gaokao are more open to Western democratic values and less supportive of the Chinese regime.
In terms of the research, the respondents who participated in our survey are people that we’re following over time, so we’re going to continue to survey them throughout their college experience.
“…if you look at what senior figures in the Trump administration have said about China, there still seems to be a desire to push for some sort of reform—political reform—in China. If that is the case, then the use of racist rhetoric by the administration undermines that goal.”
YCW: What are the implications of this study? And what can be done to combat anti-Chinese prejudice?
JP: One thing is that policymaking should be separated from racism and discriminatory rhetoric. No matter what policies the U.S. might adopt, there really is no need to layer racist sentiment on top. Not only is there no need, but when anti-Chinese racism accompanies policies toward China, it does not serve U.S. efforts to promote democracy or political reform in China.
There is a question of whether promoting political reform in China is really a goal of the current administration. But if you look at what senior figures in the Trump administration have said about China, there still seems to be a desire to push for some sort of reform—political reform—in China. If that is the case, then the use of racist rhetoric by the administration undermines that goal.
— Interview by Joshua Cartwright