Changing tigers: Gilley trades career in China for study at Princeton
By Cynthia Yoder
Princeton NJ -- Prior to enrolling as a doctoral student in politics this past fall, Bruce Gilley spent 10 years as a journalist in China -- years he jokingly refers to as "an extended period of field work financed by Dow Jones."
Until last year, Gilley was a contributing editor for The Far East Economic Review, a Dow Jones-owned magazine. But his "field work" also included writing four books on Chinese politics and experiencing events that ignited an intellectual curiosity he's now pursuing at Princeton.
Perry Link, professor of East Asian studies, said having Gilley in Princeton's China-studies community is more like having another colleague than a graduate student. "His insights into Chinese politics are on a par with our country's leading specialists in that field," he said, "and he has already published more than some tenured professors."
This past fall, "China's New Rulers: The Secret Files," a book Gilley co-wrote with Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, was published by the New York Review of Books. His latest book, "China's Democratic Future," is due out this fall from Columbia University Press.
Gilley said this forthcoming book will be a "swan song" to his exclusive focus on China.
"It's a foolhardy attempt to predict the future democratic transition and emergence in China, which I actually think is not that far off," he said. His conclusion is based on the transition to democracy in other Asian countries that have had challenges similar to China's, coupled with China's current rapid liberalization. Signs of this liberalization are in the country's recent entry into the World Trade Organization and its winning of the bid for the 2008 Olympics, Gilley said.
A new direction
While the book may further establish Gilley as a specialist on China, his goals as a doctoral student are to move in the opposite direction -- he wants to diversify.
"It's great to have an area of specialty. You can really get to know your subject well," he said. "On the other hand, what I realized in writing my last book is that comparative insights are important in understanding where a country is going. Being able to look at cross-country experience in political development or democratization is really useful."
Gilley's sub-field as a doctoral candidate, not surprisingly, is comparative politics. His goal is to use his insights into China's political development as a springboard into a broader, more systematic study of political development across countries. Ultimately, he'd like to teach on the university level and continue to publish his research.
A native of Canada, Gilley moved to China in 1991 to teach English as a Second Language. Equipped with a B.A. from the University of Toronto and a master's in economics from the University of Oxford, he had planned the move as a one-year break before enrolling in doctoral studies. But China was fascinating to him in this post-Tiananmen era, and Gilley soon began work as a journalist.
In 1992, he moved to Hong Kong, and in 1997 he witnessed the signing over of the city from Britain to China in a midnight ceremony following the expiration of Britain's lease.
"Asia was going through such an exciting period of growth," Gilley said. "It was a spurt of growth analogous to early 19th-century Europe -- there was an explosion of economic growth, social change and concurrent political change. I had a ringside seat during a very interesting period in China."
Gilley wrote his first book, "Tiger on the Brink," a study of China's president Jiang Zemin, while working as a journalist. During preparation of his next book, "Model Rebels: The Rise and Fall of China's Richest Village," he began to see the intellectual limits of journalism as he was drawn toward writing from a more systematic point of view. "Model Rebels" is a tale of rural rebellion that unfolds in a Chinese village during the post-1978 economic reform era. Gilley describes the book as a "gripping tale -- with a social science backdrop."
Returning to academia after a decade away was a challenging decision, Gilley said. Along with feeling removed from the campus environment, he knew that pursuing life as an academic would never be as lucrative as his work as a journalist.
"There's a lot of inertia that tells you not to do it. You have to have a strong intellectual drive to make that kind of change," he said.
Yet at the same time, he said, he feels like this is the "absolute best time" for him to be pursuing his doctorate. Despite the fact that he is a decade older than most of his peers, he sees the benefit for himself intellectually.
"It's just the time when I've accumulated enough raw material so that coming back and looking at things from a theoretical perspective really starts to pay off," he said.
The China Seminar Series
One of the first acts of Gilley's life at Princeton was to initiate the China Seminar Series, a forum for the debate of major issues relating to China and its transformation from a closed, totalitarian state into an open, democratic one. Speakers have included many top-level scholars, activists and business and government leaders (see http://www.princeton.edu/ ~eastasia for a schedule of speakers).
Gilley said he received support from many quarters for developing the China Seminar Series, including from the Program in East Asian Studies, which hosts the series.
Lynn White, professor of politics and international affairs, served on a panel concerning Taiwan sovereignty in October. He applauded the series for its variety of sagely chosen topics, which have ranged from pressing political and strategic issues to China's economic and social transformation.
"The China Seminar Series has been a big contribution to this campus," White said.
Having an accomplished journalist in the graduate politics program also is adding to classroom life. Nancy Bermeo, professor of politics, said Gilley was able to provide a unique perspective for students in her seminar in comparative politics.
"We usually discuss books written by someone we don't have access to," said Bermeo. "But Bruce could discuss his own books on China, and that was a nice contribution."
Gilley expects that his future books will be written from a broader social science perspective without losing the general audience he is accustomed to reaching. And he isn't opting out of journalism completely. He currently writes op-ed pieces for The Wall Street Journal.
"As a graduate student without an income," he noted, "I have an additional motivation to write them!"
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