Shenzhen, China, Anqi Yan’s hometown, is a city “in-between.” Geographically, the city links Hong Kong and mainland China. Politically, many high-level Shenzhen officials study in Singapore and admire the country’s success in promoting neo-liberalism while maintaining authoritarianism. Yan’s growth and structure of cities thesis examined how these features have affected Shenzhen’s management of local civil society.
She learned that Shenzhen and China are increasingly managing civil society less like Hong Kong and more like Singapore. Hong Kong has historically encouraged an active civil society, though that has changed in recent years, whereas Singapore uses a more authoritarian model that values political stability over neo-liberal ideas.
Yan began this research as a Bryn Mawr Hanna Holborn Gray research fellow. Her independent summer research explored environmental nongovernmental organizations in Shenzhen and their interactions with the local government within an authoritarian political system.
“Through my research, I got a sense that civil society management has always been controversial within the Party-state, as civil society can be a potential threat to political stability,” said Yan. “And Shenzhen, where I was born and raised, is an experimental ground. In other words, many policies were designed and enacted first in Shenzhen, and if these policies turned out to be pragmatic and effective, they would be put into practice in the rest of China. So I thought that Shenzhen could be a meaningful lens to look through to learn about political winds in China.”
Yan’s thesis project inspired her to continue studying Chinese politics, specifically civil society engagement. In the fall, she is beginning her Masters in East Asian Studies at Yale, where she looks forward to learning more anthropological and qualitative research methods that can be used in the field.
Who was your thesis advisor?
My thesis advisor was Professor Gary McDonogh at Bryn Mawr College. He was also my advisor for my Hanna Holborn Gray summer research project, so he really understood what I wanted to study. He also had deep knowledge in Hong Kong and he suggested many useful books and articles for me to look into for my thesis. It has been difficult to conduct research and communicate on a regular basis these days, but he still gave me valuable advice and moral support.
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
There are a lot of people in this field, and when I tried to reach out to them during the research process, many of these scholars from the U.S. and China did not hesitate to give me suggestions, and I genuinely feel that it has been such a blessing to be supported by the Bi-Co community and a bigger academic community during such a difficult time. My biggest takeaway from the project is probably the courage to initiate conversations and reach out for help.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.