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How to successfully carry out research on China in challenging times – a perspective from junior scholars

by Alice Trinkle, Felix Garten, Johannes Petry, Bo Yang and Yating Zhang

№ 14/2022 from Sep 22, 2022

Researchers specialising on China face severe challenges in carrying out original research. Five junior scholars wonder if the good times for research on China belong to the past. Foreign researchers have not been able to enter China for research purposes since the outbreak of the pandemic. This is especially limiting for those at a PhD or postdoc level whose projects have tight timeframes. In addition, research on China has to contend with an increasingly difficult political environment sensitive to work on politically-charged topics. Regardless of these challenges, Alice Trinkle, Felix Garten, Johannes Petry, Bo Yang and Yating Zhang believe that China research and expertise is needed now more than ever, especially from a new cohort of younger scholars. Drawing on their own experience, they highlight approaches that enable innovative research and methods of collecting primary data.

Archival materials

Archival materials
Image Credit: Pexels on Pixabay

The challenge for young scholars

Young scholars seeking to carry out research on China are increasingly shying away from doing so. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign researchers have not been able to enter China for field research and data collection. Even Chinese nationals face travel restrictions, coming from abroad and within the country, not to mention quarantine requirements and soaring prices for flight tickets. The personal burden of undertaking such research often leads young scholars to refrain from conducting field research in China, with concerns over unintended consequences for their career in the long-term, on matters such as the quality of research publications.

Challenges in research due to the increasingly tense political environment in China have been observed across the board. Since long before 2020, sensitive keywords had to be avoided in surveys, as otherwise Chinese authorities could block the implementation of a survey. After China imposed sanctions on some EU-based China experts in 2021 the situation only worsened. Several independent research institutes such as MERICS were blacklisted by the Chinese authorities. Inside China, historical research has become highly politicised. In 2021, Xi Jinping announced the fight against what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) termed ‘Historical Nihilism’, referring to any narratives of history not complying with the CCP’s ‘official’ line.

Of particular note is the difference between the burden for young researchers and the situation of more established researchers. Young scholars cannot fall back on data collected during previous research projects, nor did they have the chance to build transnational academic networks within China. Tapping into these networks might enable more established researchers to obtain data via colleagues on the ground. What is more, junior scholars face time limitations due to the funding periods of PhD- and postdoc-projects.

In spite of the difficult research environment facing young scholars, we believe that in today’s increasingly polarised world in-depth research and expertise on China in all its diversity is needed now more than ever. A number of innovative approaches remain open for young scholars. In the following paragraphs, we collected a few experiences from our own work, in the hope of inspiring others.

Personal experience and practical solutions

One alternative is to work on transnational projects such as on China’s financial integration along the Belt and Road or Chinese-Hungarian exchanges on economic reform thought, retrieving data and materials from partner countries. Foreign archives can thereby provide a valuable source for materials on China. For example, historians can obtain valuable primary sources on European-Chinese relations in archives based in Europe, such as the German federal archive. [1] Sources obtained abroad can furthermore provide a different angle to researched topics.

To include the Chinese perspective, published Chinese language materials should be consulted, including journal articles, memoirs and (party) reports. These materials represent the publicly sanctioned official view, and hence lack the rich background information of formerly classified archival material. Documents from foreign archives can still complement Chinese language sources, and constitute a potential workaround for current restrictions. Several European libraries possess extensive materials from China collected in the past decades, and they often provide access to Chinese digital libraries and text databases.

Generally speaking, internet sources create opportunities for research. Data can be obtained via accessible Chinese websites and techniques such as web scraping. Several digital libraries possess a variety of Chinese language materials, such as government documents, statistical data, and newspapers. Occasionally, one can obtain digitalised archives through such means. Although official data should be assessed critically, the Chinese statistical yearbooks might prove to be a valuable source. Economic data can be retrieved from databases like CEIC and Wind, while financial newspapers, corporate websites and regulatory reports add another important dimension for those interested in the Chinese economy. Researchers can collect data via countries that have less strict regulations on conducting academic research, even if China’s operations abroad are sometimes shrouded in secrecy. A number of us have created our own descriptive datasets, which allow the observation of larger trends through data from documents.

Collaboration with Chinese researchers and institutions is another feasible option to retrieve data and original material, subject to access. Working with local research assistants is possible, but rumours abound that local colleagues may face suppression and enter into conflict with the authorities. This approach to fieldwork in China is at the very least problematic from an ethical standpoint. Reaching out to established Chinese scholars or institutions is another way to get around restrictions, even if junior scholars could struggle to establish such relationships without in-person contact. Qualitative research interviews are a further source of information and a way of closing gaps in data. That said, sensitive issues are not willingly discussed online in the Chinese context. In the light of this, we found that data- and document-based research is a more promising research approach.

What about 2023?

Although travel restrictions to China might be eased after the 20th Communist Party Congress, challenges due to political conflicts and tensions do not show any signs of easing for the foreseeable future. We therefore propose combining data and primary materials obtained outside China, internet sources, published materials and collaborating with colleagues across the globe as a viable transnational research strategy. Maintaining links with China, be it through transnational research projects, including China in teaching materials, or establishing contact with Chinese colleagues, is crucial in a world that is evermore distanced and fragmented. We hope our shared experiences might help other junior scholars in their endeavours researching China in these trying times.

[1] [1] Archival materials can be viewed after a retention period of 30 years only.

Alice Trinkle is a global historian with a focus on both China and Hungary. She is currently a project doctoral researcher in the Junior Research Group “Peripheral Liberalism”. In her PhD project, Alice analyses transnational exchanges on reforms and markets in (post-)socialist China and Eastern Europe, and especially Hungary (1970s–1990s). Before joining SCRIPTS, Alice studied History, Chinese Studies, German Language and Literature, and educational science at SOAS University of London, UIBE Beijing, and Potsdam University.

Felix Garten is a doctoral researcher in the research project “The Challenge to the Challenge: The Belt and Road Initiative’s Implications for Liberal Trade and (Digital) Finance and the Response in Other Countries”. He is also a research associate for Prof. Daniela Stockmann and a research fellow of the Centre for Digital Governance, both at the Hertie School. In his dissertation project, Felix analyses the activities of Chinese digital platform companies in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Before joining SCRIPTS, Felix studied for a Bachelor in Chinese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and a Master in International Affairs at the Hertie School.

Dr. Johannes Petry was an IRC Postdoctoral Fellow at SCRIPTS from 2020 to 2021. He is now the Principal Investigator of the StateCapFinance project at Goethe Universität Frankfurt. Johannes is a political economist researching the changing dynamics of financial globalisation and its impact on the norms, institutions and power dynamics that underpin the global economy, mainly focusing on China’s economic rise and other post-crisis transformation of the global financial system. Johannes wrote a PhD thesis on ‘Capital markets with Chinese characteristics’ at the University of Warwick.

Bo Yang is a doctoral researcher at SCRIPTS whose project focuses on the change of China's attitude towards climate change and its environmental policy. Before joining SCRIPTS, Bo studied European Politics and Bilingual Broadcasting at Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Zhejiang University of Media and Communication. He also holds a Master’s in International Politics.

Yating Zhang is a historian focusing on modern Chinese history. At present, she is a doctoral researcher in the Graduate School of East Asian Studies (GEAS) at Freie Universität Berlin. Yating’s research focusses on foreign businesses in China during China’s Reform and Opening up era (1970s-1990s), particularly economic relations between China and Germany. Before joining GEAS, Yating obtained a Master’s degree from Nanjing University in the research project “Foreign Historical Materials about China's Anti-Japanese War: Translation and Research of the Archives of the Lytton Commission”.

You may refer to this article by citing it as “Trinkle, A. et al. 2022: How to successfully carry out China Research in challenging times – A perspective from junior scholars, SCRIPTS Think piece No. 14, Berlin: Cluster of Excellence 2055 “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)”.