"How I Did My Research on Shuanggui" - Notes Prepared for the Workshop "Methodological Approaches to Assess the Legal Development in China's One Party State"

On August 23, I will have the honor to take part to a workshop organized by the ECLS Young Scholars, to be held in Leiden, and entitled “Methodological Approaches to Assess the Legal Development in China’s One Party State”. 

While the workshop will take place next week, some colleagues have already asked me to explain the methodological approach I took in researching shuanggui and how – in their words “I could pinpoint those documents”. Given more than ten years have passed from the time when my research started, the time has perhaps come to explain the reason why I researched that topic, and how I did it.

I hope that this account, which is as accurate as my memory allows and expands upon the methodology section of my article, can pave the way to a productive workshop discussion.

Why I Decided to Do Research on Shuanggui

My work on shuanggui was born out of serendipity. 

The biggest academic aspiration I ever had was producing the first Italian translation of a little-known Warrying States treatise on cosmology and rhetoric - the Guiguzi ("The Classic of the Master of the Valley of the Spirits"). In fact, during a trip to China in the winter of 1997, I discussed the feasibility of this work with an older colleague, began scouring bookstores looking for each and every possible edition of the book, and started studying classical Chinese. 

But then, I was made to work on contemporary China instead. So I thought I would research legislation on economic and financial crime in the PRC. After all, I graduated on the eve of China's accession to the WTO, and I thought the internationalization of China's banking system, and Western banking operations in China made this research worthwile. 

But, one afternoon in October 2000 shortly after I had started my PhD, I received a valuable suggestion by a professor at the University of Rome:
China is a Communist state, and all important matters are regulated by Party documents. State documents are secondary. As it was the case in the Soviet Union, Party members are investigated by the Party first. Internal Party legislation is not accessible to non-Party members – if you will bring me those Party documents you might get your PhD. Show me the documents if you can find them! Go away!

My readers should not misread those words: back in those days, this was an entirely normal way for professors to encourage and motivate PhD candidates to do their very best in their research.

This is how my research on shuanggui began.

The first thing I did was googling the characters for ‘shuanggui’ - I obtained hundreds of search results from Chinese official websites. I reasoned that if shuanggui were truly secret, Chinese newspapers would not write about it, and I came to the conclusion that shuanggui must have been just very, very hard to research instead.

I decided to travel to China so I could archival research. I was told I would be wasting my time in China, and that I had to travel to Hong Kong instead.

I travelled to Beijing.

The University of Rome didn’t sponsor PhD candidates’ research trips, so we had to pay our own money to produce our research. We found it very hard to obtain grants from any third party institution. We had to compete against persons who already had an impressive record of international publications by the time they started their PhD, and who came from institutions ranking much, much higher than Italian universities. Life in Hong Kong on a PhD candidate’s budget was not sustainable.

Nonetheless, I visited Hong Kong, where I spent 19 days. Once I arrived there, I found out there was nothing much I could do. My credit and debit card did not work in Hong Kong, and I had to find a way to make the 1,500 HK$ I had in cash last for almost three weeks. Only later would I discover the shuanggui documents had never been in Hong Kong.

How Research on Shuanggui Took Place

Once back to Beijing, I spent a few days going through the usual meeting-and-interview routines of Western researchers in China. I soon realized that the interview meetings at high end caf├ęs and Western restaurants with other Western researchers were not sustainable either. Also, even though conversation with Western or Chinese academics is very useful, without the shuanggui documents in hand there was very little I could talk about.

I reasoned that, if ‘shuanggui’ was public knowledge, the system must have been based on at least one document. If the document existed, and it was public, there was only one place where it could have been. That place must have necessarily been the Beijing National Library.

I started spending my days at the National Library.

The technique I used was indeed primitive: I would walk through the open shelves, look at the title of each and every book, and browse through each and every book I was allowed to read. This work took place in the public sections of the National Library. The library had a section accessible only to government officials and to members of the Party. I was obviously not allowed access to that section. Neither did I ask anyone to access that section for me, and report on what they had read. The mere act of making such a request would have been both unethical and illegal.

Besides, I wanted to see the documents with my own eyes. I wasn’t interested in second-hand accounts: the professor had told me I should have relied on written documents, and that he would have rejected any work based on secondary sources and/or hearsay.

At that time, I noticed how everyone knew something about shuanggui. But, everyone would give a different account of what shuanggui was, and why it existed. And everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the importance of shuanggui. To some shuanggui was a topic worth researching, others were highly sceptical about my research, yet others thought shuanggui was neither relevant nor important.

While I greatly benefitted from exposure to such a broad range of opinions, I did not have the goal to compile a survey of scholars’ opinions on shuanggui. I felt that, without the documents in hand, there would have been very little substance to such a discussion. And in the end, shuanggui was not about opinions but about facts: either you were being investigated, or you were not.

My work at the library continued for months. Given regulations on shuanggui were in volumes held by the National Library, and given I browsed each one of those volumes page after page, I eventually found each one of the documents.

An article based on those documents, however, was published only in 2008 due to delays, and untimely occurrences of various kinds. Those who are interested, and who have paid access to Sage Journals, can download it from there.