Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am currently a PhD candidate in the political science program, now about to enter into the 6th – and hopefully final! – year of the program. Most of my work focuses on East Asia, particularly China and Taiwan, and on broader issues related to authoritarianism and democratization, development and conflict. My dissertation project, under the supervision of Professors Lynette Ong (chair), Lucan Way, and Shivaji Mukherjee, examines cases of state-led land reform and rural transformation in autocracies, and how these state projects alter institutions of authoritarian control in the process. Though I’ve spent my childhood in various places, my family is originally from Taiwan.

Why did you choose to apply for the PCJ fellowship?

An earlier iteration of my dissertation project was more focused on questions of rural development in East Asia and a bit less relevant to issues of conflict. But as I spent more time with the topic, I came to the realization that the history of rural development in the region is intertwined with the objectives of autocratic rule and the post-WWII and Cold War security environment, and that conversations with the literature on conflict and security studies were virtually unavoidable. I thus shifted my focus, and the PCJ program naturally was a fit.

What drew you to political science?

As a student, I’ve always been a bit of an academic vagabond. I had a pretty interdisciplinary background in college and my masters studies, having experimented with a lot of courses in sociology and history. At the end of the day I still found myself interested in the political side of these different fields, and ultimately this compelled me to choose political science for the PhD program. While much of academia is trying to experiment with interdisciplinary approaches these days, I think political science’s unique focus on institutions – be it bureaucracies, political parties and security forces – is what ultimately drew me to the field.

What motivated you to continue your education after your undergraduate and subsequently your graduate degrees?

It was frankly not a very well thought out process looking back. I found myself enjoying some of the upper-level seminar courses in college, but I didn’t really see graduate school as a viable option until my senior year. Having worked as a research assistant and going through the thesis process probably convinced me that I had some passable research skills. It was really after getting into a master’s program and meeting a lot of like-minded peers that I thought more seriously about how to translate my interests into a potential career in research and academia. The major motivator, ultimately, is that I want to be able to answer questions that many of my past professors have inspired me to think about.

I feel like a lot of students are considering pursuing a PhD in the future- can you tell us a bit more about what it is like?

You have to be able to juggle different roles. You are a student of course, and expected to absorb all the classical theories along with the cutting-edge research. At the same time, you are also considered as a work colleague, and will be asked to collaborate or engage with other people’s research in workshops or conferences. Teaching duties and research assistantships might also take up a significant portion of one’s PhD career. At the end of the day, you have to devote most of your energy into researching and writing on a topic for a long stretch of time, which sometimes involves tons of traveling and engaging with your research subjects, but more often than not can turn out to be quite a solitary endeavor. All of this can be quite exciting, but requires a delicate balancing act.

Is it worth it? Depends on your frame of reference. Realistically speaking, PhD stipends are fairly meager compared to what undergrads with specialized degrees can earn out there in the real world. You are asked to commit 5~6 (or even more) valuable years of your young adult life with no immediate rewards. Even if you get through the hurdle of the PhD program, supply still trumps demand in the current academia job market, and you might still end up choosing more promising private or public sector opportunities – which you probably could have done anyway after undergrad in the first place! With that being said, if you have the intellectual passion and the patience to grind it out, the PhD path can really be a rewarding and unique experience that will set you apart from your peers. But certainly be informed of what you are getting into.

Do you have any experience applying your expertise in a non-academic workplace/setting? If so, can you speak on that experience?

I don’t have tons of working experience outside of grad school, but I do occasionally write op-eds on contemporary Asian politics. Making our research and expertise useful to the general public is something that naturally academics all think about, but for political science academics in particular it’s now more important than ever, and something I look forward to doing more with the PCJ program next year.

Can you speak more about your dissertation and what motivated you to study this area?

There were many strands of inspiration, but the primary source is from Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, which I’m sure is still on many class syllabi today and I’ve re-read several times since college. The chapter on China’s road to Communism is perhaps not as celebrated as the other case studies in the book, but has always intrigued me with regards to what it did not cover – what happened with the agrarian revolution after the Communists won in 1949? In addition, I also began to look to my native Taiwan, and thought it was interesting how the Kuomintang (KMT) regime – the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological competitor during the height of the Cold War – presented an alternative model towards rural reform and systems of political control under authoritarianism. Curiously, both of these regimes all thought land redistribution was so important that they all took it on immediately in their newly governed territories, despite being under security threats. Perhaps an interesting way to think about this is to regard the KMT regime on Taiwan as the ‘what-if’ scenario for the PRC, historical legacies and contingencies notwithstanding.

What are your other research interests besides your dissertation on the PRC?

The natural extension of my dissertation is to think more on a global scale, in terms of how institutions under autocracies were generated under different circumstances such as civil wars, decolonization, or other international pressures, and whether these different origins impact how autocracies end up democratizing or persisting in the contemporary era. My other additional interests in Chinese and Taiwanese politics range quite a bit. For China, I’m interested in classical topics in the literature such as Mao-era mobilization, contentious politics, and the state’s role during economic transition; for Taiwan, I’m particularly interested in the legacies of the Japanese colonial era, political repression under authoritarian rule, and the current state of party politics with the growing salience of the China issue. Most of other my comparative interests are anchored by these questions.

What sparked your interest in East Asia and China as your principal area of study?

My first visit to China was to Shenzhen in ’09, during which me and my college friends organized a summer workshop for Chinese and Taiwanese students. Shenzhen at the time was the epitome of China’s impressive economic progress, but also home to many vibrant forces that sought to carve out independent civic spaces. I actually returned to the city last year after a decade, and suffice to say much has changed. During this decade, I’ve also been fortunate enough to visit a variety of places across the country, and am constantly reminded of the variations and contradictions that many scholars of China have spent their life puzzling over.

My interest in Taiwan is perhaps much more straightforward to explain given my familial background, but one thing I’ve noticed with this generation of Taiwanese kids or those of Taiwanese-descent is that having a sense of a Taiwanese identity – as opposed to a broader Han Chinese or Sinophonic identity – has become much more of a second nature to people. Naturally, this younger cohort is going to be more motivated towards learning about the histories, cultures, and politics of Taiwan. I think it’s not a coincidence that there is a bit of a renaissance in Taiwan studies going on in North American and European academia in recent years, and am just glad I’ve been able to come in contact with many great young scholars.

What are you most looking forward to regarding being a PCJ fellow?

Looking forward to engaging with many great scholars and students at the center, from a socially-safe distance!

Learn more about Kevin here.