Wilson Center Experts

Anne F Thurston

Fellow
Asia Program

Expertise:
Asia
Affiliation:
Associate Professor, China Studies Program, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Democracy, Stability and the Dilemma of Political Reform in China"
Term:
Sep 01, 2004
-
May 01, 2005

I often describe myself as the China counterpart to the narrator in Iris Murdoch's novel, The Philosopher's Pupil, who says "my role in life is listening to people's stories." My role in life is to listen to Chinese people tell their stories—and then to relate those stories here in the West in a way that makes sense to both us and the storytellers themselves. The turning point in my life as a China specialist came in April 1979, when I traveled with the first group of Chinese social scientists and humanists to visit the United States since before the communist revolution of 1949. Nearly everyone in the delegation had suffered terribly from Mao's political campaigns—the anti-rightist movement of 1957, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Their stories were at such odds with the official, printed accounts that I resolved to go to China to do a study of the Cultural Revolution based on interviews with people who had been its victims. The book that resulted—Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of China's Intellectuals during the Great Cultural Revolution—is still my favorite. My career took an unorthodox turn following this research. I spent some 20 years, six of which were in China, as an independent scholar—writing, lecturing, consulting, leading a rich and rewarding life. I was fortunate to be sustained by grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the United States Institute of Peace, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. I continued to rely on the voices of ordinary people to understand the reality of life in everyday China. My writings reflect the great satisfaction I receive from listening to Chinese stories. A Chinese Odyssey tells the story, warts and all, of a Chinese dissident who spent several years awaiting his execution. The Private Life of Chairman Mao is a collaboration with the man who served as Mao's personal physician for the last 22 years of the chairman's life. In recent years, I have turned my attention to grassroots China. I was in Beijing during the student movement in the spring of 1989 and stayed there for more than a year after its tragic denouement. The experience has left me with a continuing fascination with (and appreciation of) the problems of democratization in China. I have spent a fair amount of time investigating competitive elections in Chinese villages, which are now mandated by law and which some have hoped might result in a process of gradual democratization at higher levels. I have spent considerable time investigating and working with both government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) as well as locally organized, locally run, genuine non-governmental organizations. And I am spending time in some of the poorest areas of China, most notably the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province, where the population is 98 percent Tibetan and the average per capita income is around $50 a year. I returned to teaching—in the China Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies—in 2000. My fellowship at the Wilson Center gives me the opportunity to transform my research on grass roots China and problems of democratization into a book.
 

Education

B.A. (1965) Government, Tufts University, Medford Massachusetts; M.A. (1966) Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; Ph.D. (1974) Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
 

Subjects

China,Democratization
 

Experience

  • Associate Professor, China Studies Program, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, 2000-present
  • Voice of America, interview series, broadcast in Chinese, 1998-2004
  • Independent Writer, Consultant, Lecturer, 1986-2000
  • Consultant to the National Endowment for Democracy, 1998-2000
  • Project Fellow, Program on International Economics and Politics, East-West Center, 1995
  • Consultant to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, 1986-88
  • Associate in Research, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University, 1980-85
  • Visiting Scholar, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Literature, 1981-82
  • Professional Staff Associate, Social Science Research Council, 1977-80
  • Assistant Professor, Fordham University, Department of Political Science, (1974-80; on leave 1978-80)

Expertise

Contemporary Chinese politics and society; grassroots China; the social consequences of economic development; problems of political change and democratization; village elections; NGOs; major issues facing China in the 21st century

Project Summary

Based largely on interviews conducted in China, this study begins by examining the popular fear that the dislocations of rapid socio-economic change could plunge the country into chaos. While many believe (and hope) that democracy in China is both necessary and inevitable, many also fear that democracy introduced too soon could result in chaos. The study examines both the real potential for instability as well as several areas where the groundwork for future democratization is being laid—in the growth of non-governmental organizations, the introduction of competitive elections at the village level, and the search for alternative values as evidenced in the dramatic rise of religious belief. Finally, the study will explore the policy implications of potentially unstable China and suggest areas of cooperation to smooth China's difficult transition.

Major Publications

  • Muddling Toward Democracy: Political Change in Grass Roots China (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1998)
  • The Private Life of Chairman Mao, with Li Zhisui (New York: Random House, 1994)
  • Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of China's Intellectuals during the Great Cultural Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987; and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988, paperback)

Stay in Touch

Are you a Wilson Center alumnus? We want to hear about your latest move, award or project. Please send us your news at alumni@wilsoncenter.org.