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In 1977, Heberer 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).
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 served as a professor of Chinese Economic Studies at the University for Applied Sciences in Bremen. From 1992 to 1998, he acted as a professor of political science with a focus on East Asian politics at the University of Trier. From 1998 to 2013, he has held a chair professorship 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. Since then, he is still actively involved in conducting basic research on China and its political and social development.
Heberer has held visiting professor roles at: Seoul National University, University of Washington; China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics; National Taiwan University and National Sun Yat-sen University; Zhejiang University; University of Vienna and Peking University.
Heberer 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 the Yi society such as ethnic entrepreneur and environmental governance, 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 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, urban communities (shequ), mobilized participation and co-production; administrative reforms; new patterns of governance in rural areas; and the agency of local cadres.
Heberer has also studied the formal and informal 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 studied social and policy innovations in China, and with critical junctures of authoritarian systems. He also worked on new patterns of political representation and new political representative claims from a comparative perspective, and on social disciplining and civilizing processes in the context of modernization.
Thomas Heberer is also on the editorial board of several 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 International Quarterly for Asian Studies, the International Journal of Political Science & Diplomacy, and the journal 国外理论动态/Foreign Theoretical Trends. He is co-founder of the “Association of Social Science Research on China” (ASC) and was on the Advisory Board of the Europe-China Academic Network (ECAN) of the European Commission.
Heberer has authored or co-authored more than 40 books and has also edited or co-edited 23 volumes in German, English and Chinese. His publications include:
- 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);
- (co-authored by G. Schubert), Weapons of the Rich. Strategic Action of Private Entrepreneurs in Contemporary China, Singapore, London, New York et al. (World Scientific) 2020.
- Special Issue “Reappraisal of Political Representation across Political Orders: New Conceptual and Analytic Tools.” Guest editors: Thomas Heberer and Anna Shpakovskaya. In: Journal of Chinese Governance 4/2019.
- Disciplining of a Society. Social Disciplining and Civilizing Processes in Contemporary China. Cambridge/Mass. (Harvard University, Kennedy School, Ash Center) 2020. Online version: https://ash.harvard.edu/publications/disciplining-society-social-disciplining-and-civilizing-processes-contemporary
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), edited by the political scientist Professor Yu Jianxing.
Among his book publications in Chinese are:
- 作为战略群体的企业家. 中国私营企业家的社会与政治功能研究(Entrepreneurs as Strategic Groups. The social and political function of private entrepreneurs in China), Beijing (Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe) 2003.
- 凉山彝族企业家. 社会与制度变迁的承载着 (Yi Entrepreneurs in Liangshan. Carriers of Social and Institutional Change), Beijing (Minzu chubanshe) 2005.
- 从群众到公民. 中国的政治参与 (From Masses to Citizens. Political Participation in China), Beijing (Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe) 2009.
- (co-edited by D. Grunow and Li Huibin), 中国与德国的环境治理比较的视角 (Environmental Governance in China and Germany from a Comparative Perspective), Beijing (Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe) 2012.
- (co-edited by Gunter Schubert and Yang Xuedong), 主动的地方政治。作为战略群体的县乡干部 (Proactive Local Politics: County and Township cadres as Strategic Groups), Beijing, Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe, Dezember 2013.
- (co-edited by Yu Keping and Björn Alpermann), 中共的治理与适应：比较的视野 (Governance and Adaption of the CCP: A Comparative Perspective), Beijing (Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe) 2015.
- CV of Thomas Heberer
- Heberer, Thomas (1984). Nationalitätenpolitik und Entwicklungspolitik in den Gebieten nationaler Minderheiten in China. Bremer Beiträge zur Geographie und Raumplanung. Bremen: University of Bremen.
- Heberer, Thomas (ed.) (1987). Ethnic Minorities in China: Tradition and Transformation. Aachen: Herodot.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Heberer, Thomas (1989). China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation?. Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe.
- 洪雅筠，從红色憧憬到田野现實 - 王海 (Thomas Heberer) 舆德國中國研究的轉型 (From the red expectation to field reality - Thomas Heberer and the transformation of sinology in Germany). Taipeh: Taiwan National University, Master Thesis at the Institute of Political Science. 2011.
- See e.g. Thomas Heberer & Gunter Schubert - County and Township Cadres as a Strategic Group. A New Approach to Political Agency in China’s Local State. Journal of Chinese Political Science, vol. 17 No. 3/2012: 221-249 Research Gate. Accessed January 8th, 2016.
- Literature by and about Thomas Heberer in the German National Library catalogue
- Thomas Heberer - Private Entrepreneurs in China and Vietnam: Social and Political Functioning of Strategic Groups. Research Gate. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- Thomas Heberer & Claudia Derichs - The Power of Ideas - Intellectual Input and Political Change in East and Southeast Asia. NIAS Press. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- Thomas Heberer, Fan Jie & Wolfgang Taubmann - Rural China: Economic and Social Change in the Late Twentieth Century. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- Thomas Heberer - Doing Business in Rural China: Liangshan’s New Ethnic Entrepreneurs. University of Washington Press. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- Thomas Heberer & Gunter Schubert - Regime Legitimacy in Contemporary China: Institutional Change and Stability. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- Thomas Heberer & Christian Göbel - The Politics of Community Building in Urban China. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed 11. January 2016.
- For instance: 托马斯•海贝勒， 俞可平，安晓波 （主编）：中共的治理与适应。 比较的视野。北京，中央编译出版社，2015; 托马斯•海贝勒，杨雪冬，舒耕德共同主编： “主动的”地方政治：作为战略群体的县乡干部“。北京 (中央编译出版社)， 2013年; 托马斯•海贝勒，迪特•格鲁诺，李惠彬共同主编：中国与德国的环境治理(比较的视角) (中文)。 北京 (中央编译出版社)， 2012年; 托马斯•海贝勒，舒耕德： 从群众到公民——中国的政治参与。北京 (中央编译出版社)， 2009年; 托马斯•海贝勒，何增科，舒耕德： 城乡公民参与和政治合法性，北京 （中央编译出版社），2007; 托马斯•海贝勒：凉山彝族企业家。 社会和制度变迁的承载者。 北京（民族出版社），2005; 托马斯•海贝勒：作为战略群体的企业家。中国私营企业家的社会与政治功能研究。北京(中央编译出版社) 2003.
- The Official Website of Thomas Heberer
- On Heberer’s life and work (in Chinese): Cong hongse chongjing dao tianye xianshi. Wang Hai (Thomas Heberer) yu Deguo Zhongguo yanjiu de zhuanxing [From red expectations to the reality of fieldwork. Wang Hai (Thomas Heberer) and the transformation of China research in Germany], Taipei 2010
- 托马斯∙海贝勒中国研究文选 (Selection of Thomas Heberer’s research in China Studies), Zhejiang University Press, Hangzhou 2017, with a biographical introduction.
- CV of Thomas Heberer
- List of publications