A window from afar: the future of China studies?

Even as Covid travel restrictions are lifted, Xi-era crackdown on freedoms is making on-the-ground research much more difficult

March 7, 2023
Can China be studied from afar?
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With China opening up again post-Covid, many researchers are hoping to return. But open borders do not mean access to the country is any easier, academics have warned.

Even before the pandemic-driven shutdowns, studying China had become more difficult over the past decade, according to senior scholars, and a political crackdown coinciding with Xi Jinping’s third presidential term is likely to throw up more barriers for anyone doing research on the country.

Conducting surveys, accessing archival documents and doing on-the-ground interviews have all become far harder in recent years, researchers agreed.

China historians first began reporting difficulty accessing archives around 2010, said William Hurst, the Chong Hua professor of Chinese development at the University of Cambridge. When he visited a provincial archive in 2013, he was told that the catalogue he sought had been digitised. The computers, though, had no material from after 1949.

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“They were clearly expunging from the catalogue anything after the [Communist] takeover,” he recalled. 

Many China scholars in the West now rely on methods that enable them to work from a distance, including scraping Chinese websites for information.

“What’s become fashionable now is to look for quantitative data accessed remotely. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if done in absence of a more subtle understanding, it’s not going to get you very far,” Professor Hurst said.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said today’s research environment is a throwback to the 1970s, when China was still largely closed to Western scholars.  

“It’s a bit reminiscent of the way it was 40 to 50 years ago…people were quite dependent on information they could get from outside China,” he said.

Vilma Seeberg, an emerita professor for international-multicultural education at Kent State University who has been doing research in China since the mid-1970s, agreed. While she has maintained decades-long collaborations that allow her to “fly under the radar”, she believes future scholars will need a different skill set to combine data from a variety of sources.

“I look at it as a patchwork that you stitch together,” she said.

While Professor Brown’s own research relies largely on open-source data, he acknowledged that access has become more difficult for his colleagues who rely on fieldwork or study more contentious topics.

“Clearly, it’s not as easy or as straightforward as it used to be to go to China for research,” he said. “You don’t want to be vulnerable or be accused of being a spy.”

While it used to be common for scholars to enter the country on a two-year general-purpose visa, researchers today are wary. “I don’t think anyone would be crazy enough to do that,” Professor Brown said.

He worried that younger researchers starting out today would suffer, lacking the contextual knowledge of their predecessors – something that can only be gleaned on the ground.

“That direct encounter is lacking. You can be a very fine scholar without ever setting foot in China, but only in a very defined area,” he said.

Edward Vickers, who researches the contemporary history of education in Chinese societies at Kyushu University, agreed. “If you can’t go there and have a cup of tea with someone or a quiet drink in a bar, your sense of how things are is going to be seriously lacking,” he said.

While Western scholars can lean more heavily on Chinese colleagues to help collect data, the workaround isn’t ideal. Like other scholars, Dr Vickers was wary of putting Chinese collaborators at risk, aware that any messages or conversations between them could be monitored by Beijing.

“You’re conscious of the cyber-monitoring team watching over your shoulder. Certainly I am – and I think many people are – more cautious of what they write or even say on a Zoom call,” he said.

Even if China were to grant him a visa so he could conduct research on the ground, Dr Vickers would think twice about going there in person. He noted the case of the “two Michaels” – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – Canadian nationals arrested by Chinese authorities in 2018 and detained for nearly three years.

“At least on the face of it, they were not involved in anything sensitive, but they were used as hostages. We’re in a situation now of increasing tension between Britain and China, which could tip over into actual sanctions…do you want to be a Westerner caught up in that?”

Dr Vickers worried that, with greater difficulty in accessing the country, fewer students would enter the field, an outcome that would hurt Western countries’ understanding of China as well as China itself.

“It’s also potentially dangerous for China as well if China is going to lose a cadre of interlocutors in the West – people who may or may not necessarily agree with the CCP but who at least understand what’s going on and can act as cultural go-betweens,” he said.

Professor Seeberg also worried about the consequences of increasing tensions between China and the West. Worse than scholars losing access to data, political pressure could cause a cleavage in the field, with scholars already tending to align with pro- or anti-China camps, she said.  

“Some scholars will capitulate entirely to the Chinese [government] propaganda machine and others will feel squeezed into smaller publication outlets. This too would be a new version of the polarisation of scholarship that existed during the 1950s to 1980s,” she said.

“Polarisation will result in overall less accurate scholarship, a less accurate picture of China.”



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