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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsResearch&ExpertiseUnderstanding Politics behind the Scenes from the Public Appearances of Elites

Understanding Politics behind the Scenes from the Public Appearances of Elites

On Tuesday, May 26, Franziska Keller, Ph.D. candidate at New York University and visiting researcher of the HSE International Centre for the Study of Institutions and Development, presented a report called ‘Shaking hands in public. What elite co-appearances tell us about the politics behind the scenes’. This seminar marks the 9th joint Research Seminar on Diversity and Development hosted by the International Centre for the Study of Institutions and Development and NES Centre for the Study of Diversity and Social Interactions.

Keller, who is currently studying for a Ph.D. in the Department of Politics at New York University, recently spoke with the HSE news service about her study of Chinese elite behaviour and her plans to expand her research to include the Soviet and modern Russian political elite.

— You are presenting a paper on Chinese elite behaviour behind the scenes, which is based on a massive study. Is it true that there are typical types of public behaviour for political leaders across the globe, of course taking into account country and personality characteristics? What are the major findings from your research?

— First of all, let me put my research a bit more into context and emphasize that I am very much standing on the shoulders of giants. For instance, my dissertation uses biographical data of Chinese elites collected by Victor Shih (UCSD), Liu Mingxing (Peking University), Shan Wei and their research assistants, updated also by two Chinese PhD students, Lu Fengming (Duke) and Ma Xiao (University of Washington). The data for my most recent paper are scraped from a website called ‘ChinaVitae’, which provides biographical data on thousands of Chinese elites and tracks the whereabouts of more than 300 of them. And now Andrei Yakovlev and his team at ICSID, where I'm currently a visiting scholar, are collecting similar biographical data on the current Russian elites. So you could say that we use something like ‘Big Data’ - whether collected automatically from the Internet or in the form of painstakingly assembled databases - to answer questions first posed by experts on particular countries and regimes, such as the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China.

There are general rules of how political elites behave; otherwise, we wouldn't be able to study them as social scientists

Reading that literature, I definitely think that there are general rules of how political elites behave; otherwise, we wouldn't be able to study them as social scientists. But so far I have only examined the Chinese political elites in one particular time period (after 1982), so I can't yet say which results will apply to other countries as well.

— People in the Soviet Union used to read 'signs' looking at the old members of the Politburo, i.e., who was standing where, who was shaking hands with the general secretary of the Communist Party first, etc. Amazingly enough, it worked. How would you assess the modern Russian elite?

— Well, whether it worked or not is, I think, not undisputed among experts. We certainly learned something from those public displays, but was it more than what ‘the regime’ wanted us to know anyway? Humans are very good at detecting patterns, but sometimes we see patterns where there really are none, because we tend to selectively remember those instances when our rule was right. For instance, high-level politicians not appearing in public is often seen as a sign that there is trouble, and that they have been purged or toppled (but the regime doesn't want to announce that yet). In the case of Zhou Yongkang, the former Politburo Standing Committee member of the Chinese Communist Party, those rumours turned out to be right. But in the recent disappearance of Putin, this ‘rule’ was wrong, as far as we can tell now. So one of the major goals of my research is to test such rules a bit more systematically among a wider set of elites and more extended period of time.

I am certainly not an expert on the modern Russian elite, but I suspect that some of the social network analysis techniques used on European and US elites would work as well. In the case of economic elites, there is a long tradition of looking at joint board membership of companies, for instance, or of examining the ‘revolving doors’ phenomenon in which elites move back and forth between government and company positions. Many of those studies find that the vast majority of economic and political elites are closely connected to each other through such ties, and I assume we would find the same in Russia today.

Humans are very good at detecting patterns, but sometimes we see patterns where there really are none

— Could you please tell us about your work with HSE? How long will you be with the International Centre for the Study Institutions and Development and what are your goals?

I mentioned earlier that I would like to test some of our intuitions about the behaviour of political elites more systematically, and see how they apply in a different context. My main goal at ICSID is to do some preliminary inquiry into the Soviet elites. This is a case where we can actually go back in time and compare what we would have predicted from those intuitive rules and public knowledge with what we now know from the archives, for instance. Unlike the cases of Zhou Yongkang and Putin mentioned above, where it is unlikely that we will find out the ‘truth’ about what is going on behind the scenes anytime soon. So, until middle of July, I would like to learn more about possible Soviet sources, and better understand the similarities and difference between the political system and the elites in China and the Soviet Union - and maybe modern Russia.

— You have been in Moscow long enough to have favourite places. What are they? Do you have time to wander around the city?

— I confess that I haven’t had as much time to explore Moscow as I would have wanted. As an outdoor person, I like Gorky park very much, especially the wood to the south of it, where I often go for a walk.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE news service

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