From Subjects to Citizens

Professor Terry Cooper, along with research students Weijie Wang, Hui Li, and Henry Yee (now Assistant Professor at National University of Singapore), have been working on a Bedrosian Center funded project called “From Subjects to Citizens: How Homeowners and Local Officials Perceive Homeowners’ Roles in Local Governance in China.” We talked with Cooper about how the project is going:

What is the project about?

Our project focuses mainly on the engagement of homeowners in neighborhood affairs after China’s 1998 housing reform that made it possible for hundreds of millions of Chinese people to become homeowners. As the owners of private and communal properties, homeowners are beginning to play a greater role in the governance of urban neighborhoods. However, they are embedded in an authoritarian state that is hostile to citizen participation and a culture that has a very limited democratic tradition. As a result, homeowners’ participation in local governance is not always a peaceful process. Mutual adjustments of both homeowners and local government are needed. Both current institutions and existing culture affect people’s perceptions of homeowners’ roles in local governance, which may eventually influence the actions that homeowners and local governments take.

Our research questions are: How do homeowners perceive their roles in local governance? Can the participation in homeowners’ associations and neighborhood affairs empower homeowners, as many theories suggest?

How is the project going?

We did ten-days of fieldwork in Beijing in late September. During that time, we visited 11 neighborhoods, interviewed 15 homeowner leaders, 2 government officials and 2 managers of property management firms.

Qualitative interviewing is the major research method for this project. We hope to get multiple perspectives on homeowners’ engagement in local governance from the often very lengthy interviews of sometimes 2-3 hours. Our interviews focused on how homeowners perceive their participation in neighborhood affairs and how other parties, such as property management firms and local government officials saw homeowners’ participation. In addition, we also collected data in other forms such as documents of Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) and recorded videos and audios of homeowners’ meetings. Some emerging important issues such as how to make HOAs function in a sustainable way were brought to our attention in our fieldwork. These issues may become important research topics for us in the future.

We are now transcribing interviews and translating interview memos from Chinese into English. Our next step is to organize all interview data and then analyze data possibly with NVivo, a qualitative analysis software package. Based on the analysis of collected data, we will do further fieldwork next Spring to advance our research.