Thomas Heberer, Ph.D. (born 13 November 1947 in Offenbach/Main) is a Senior Professor of Chinese Politics & Society at the University Duisburg-Essen, Germany. He studied Social Anthropology (major), Philosophy, Political Science, and Chinese Studies in Frankfurt, Göttingen, Mainz and Heidelberg. In 1977 he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Bremen on the Mass Line concept of the Chinese Communist Party. The same year he went to China, where he worked as a translator and reader for the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing for more than four years (1977–81). During that time he witnessed the post-Cultural Revolution events in China and the gradual development of reform policies there.
Heberer worked from 1983 to 1985 as a research fellow with the Oversea's Museum in Bremen (Übersee-Museum Bremen), where he was put in charge of the Chinese Collection and established the museum’s permanent China exhibit. He was then appointed as a research fellow at the Institute of Geography of the University of Bremen and carried out a research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, on the development of the private economic sector in China. This project was followed by his habilitation (post-doctoral degree) thesis on the role of the individual (“informal”) economic sector of urban and social development in China. In 1989 he received the venia legendi, or authorization to lecture, in Political Science at the University of Bremen.
From 1991 to 1992, Heberer was a professor of Chinese Economic Studies at the University for Applied Sciences in Bremen. From 1992 to 1998, he was a professor of political science with a focus on East Asian politics at the University of Trier. From 1998 to 2013, he was a professor of political science with a focus on East Asia at the University of Duisburg-Essen's Institute of East Asian Studies. Upon his retirement in February 2013 he was appointed a Senior Professor of Chinese Politics and Society by the university president.
Heberer has held visiting professor roles at: Seoul National University and in Taiwan in 1997; University of Washington in 2000; China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics in 2005; National Taiwan University and National Sun Yat-sen University in 2010; Zhejiang University from 2013 to 2015; and University of Vienna in 2014.
Heberer’s thinking has been shaped by sociologists such as James Scott, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodor Adorno, and Michel Foucault. At the same time, his oeuvre is heavily influenced by his field research, a product of his anthropological studies. Field research, he argues, is the most crucial tool for understanding societies from within. He conducted his first field research in 1981 on the issue of Chinese nationalities’ policies and development policies in ethnic minority areas among the Yi (Nuosu), one of the largest ethnic minorities in China, in the Liangshan Mountains in Southwestern Sichuan province. Since then he has continuously worked on various aspects of Yi society and has been actively involved in creating academic and public awareness for the Yi minority. In 1998 he hosted the “Second International Yi Conference” at the University of Trier, and in 2006 he organized a major exhibition on the history, culture, religion, and society of the Yi at the Duisburg Historical Museum. In 2000/2001 he collected 250,000 Deutsche Mark among several German institutions for establishing a primary school for Yi minority children in Meigu County including a scholarship program.
Throughout the following decades, Heberer continued his dedicated field research, extending it into the areas of behavior of social actors and institutional change and investigating such diverse topics as the development of China’s private sector, rural urbanization and social change, the political and social role of private entrepreneurs in China and Vietnam, the diffusion of intellectual ideas into politics, environmental governance, and the agency of local cadres.
Most recently, he has been concerned with the political participation and organizational behavior of social groups in China. In the process, he has further developed the sociological concept of “strategic groups” in the context of both local cadres and entrepreneurial groups in China. In addition, he is concerned with social and policy innovations in China, and with critical junctures of authoritarian systems. Most recently he is working on new patterns of political representation and new political representative claims from a comparative perspective.
Thomas Heberer is also on the editorial board of a number of renowned international academic journals, including the International Journal of Political Science & Diplomacy, The China Quarterly, the Journal of China in Comparative Perspective, the European Journal of East Asian Studies, the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, the Journal of Chinese Governance, the Chinese Political Science Review, the Internationales Asienforum, the International Journal of Political Science & Diplomacy, the journal 国外理论动态/Foreign Theoretical Trends, etc.). He is co-founder of the “Association of Social Science Research on China” (ASC) and was for quite some years on the Advisory Board of the Europe-China Academic Network (ECAN) of the European Commission.
Heberer has authored or co-authored more than 38 books and has also edited or co-edited 21 volumes in German, English and Chinese. His articles have been published in many international journals and volumes in a total of ten languages. Among his more recent and major English monographs are:
- Private Entrepreneurs in China and Vietnam. Social and Political Functioning of Strategic Groups. China Studies published for the Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Oxford, Leiden (Brill) 2003;
- (co-edited by C. Derichs), The Power of Ideas - Intellectual Input and Political Change in East and Southeast Asia, Copenhagen 2006 (NIAS Press);
- (co-authored by Fan Jie and W.Taubmann), Rural China: Economic and Social Change in the Late Twentieth Century, Armonk/London (M.E. Sharpe) 2006; [Reprint Routledge, 2015]
- Doing Business in Rural China: Liangshan’s New Ethnic Entrepreneurs, Seattle/London (University of Washington Press) 2007;
- (co-edited by G. Schubert), Regime Legitimacy in Contemporary China: Institutional Change and Stability, London, New York (Routledge) 2008;
- (co-authored by Christian Göbel), The Politics of Community Building in Urban China, London, New York (Routledge) 2011 (paperback edition 2013);
He also attaches great importance to publishing in Chinese and presenting his work to a wider audience in China.
On the occasion of his 70th birthday in 2017 the renowned Zhejiang University Press published a Chinese collection of Heberer’s major research articles on China (托马斯∙海贝勒中国研究文选), ed. by the political scientist Professor Yu Jianxing.