On a November afternoon, some 750 people logged into a webinar by the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, eager for answers to a perplexing question: how to study China when border controls prevent researchers from entering the country?
China’s rules to try to contain Covid-19 restrict entry for most foreigners, including tourists, some business visitors and those planning family get-togethers. But they have also had a sweeping impact on overseas professors, researchers and PhD candidates who have made understanding China their life’s work.
“We find ourselves in a challenging moment for China studies. Our colleagues who study other parts of the world are thinking about a post-Covid return to some kind of new normalcy, but we see no indication of a resumption of opportunities to travel to the region that we study,” said Michael Szonyi, director of the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies.
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This has forced some academics to change tack on research plans that would have required them to be in China. Matters are made worse by a more restrictive intellectual climate in China and growing suspicions within the US and Europe about academic partnerships with Chinese institutions.
“This will impact our understanding of China at a time when it’s really needed because of the political climate and polarisation in the discussion,” said Ingrid d’Hooghe, a China strategy adviser and senior research associate at Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “At this time more than ever, we need good knowledge about China and people who can put developments into perspective.”
Instead, studying China has become a difficult proposition for up-and-coming academics who might in the future teach, advise governments or join think tanks.
Some, like University of Michigan PhD candidate Ruby MacDougall, have shifted their research focus because of travel curbs.
“Nobody knows what the situation will be for scholars going into China,” said MacDougall, who started cultural research in Yunnan province before the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019.
“I am definitely pivoting. My [new] project itself is a pivot to think more about transcultural studies and not just China studies … for example, Sino-American interactions,” said MacDougall, whose research, under the Asian languages and cultures department, focuses on dance history.
Sam Goldstein, a Brown University PhD candidate in religious studies, left China following the outbreak of Covid-19, but then was unable to re-enter. He lost access to funding for his research on the mainland after the Donald Trump administration cancelled the Fulbright scholarship programme in a retaliatory measure against Beijing.
“I can’t continue to collaborate with my Chinese colleagues and continue to intimately, on a daily basis, be privileged to the very latest [discussions],” said Goldstein, who now works from Taiwan, further from the historical texts he focuses on.
History PhD candidate James Gethyn Evans at Harvard University raises similar concerns.
“We can do fieldwork in Taiwan, maybe in Hong Kong, in Southeast Asia and other places, but you are going to get a different story there than you will do if you are in mainland China. It’s not going to be the same … if you’re basing your narrative on sources [outside mainland China], they’re going to tell a story from their perspective.”
Academic research was disrupted around the world in 2020 as governments threw up travel barriers to try to slow the spread of Covid-19 and institutions sought to limit the infection risk for faculty and students.
But many countries have eased travel rules in recent months as more people received vaccinations. China, however, chose to keep border controls that bar most foreigners.
Academics fear the lack of access and a restrictive research environment in China may turn young scholars away from the field at a critical time.
“One of the consequences of this interruption and the increasing challenges beyond the pandemic is that a cohort, and maybe a generation, of young scholars are not going to get the kind of exposure to China that people five years earlier got,” Fairbank Centre’s Szonyi said in an interview.
Szonyi pointed to increasing difficulties in gaining access to archives, doing survey work or conducting interviews with government officials within a deteriorating intellectual environment.
Eleanor Albert, a fourth-year PhD candidate in international relations at George Washington University, says she has contingencies for her research on China’s role in global governance institutions.
“For plan B, if I can get some conversations with Chinese scholars or spend time over there that’s an added bonus, but I can’t think about being dependent on that,” said Albert.
“Even if I can get access, it’s a little unclear what the climate will be like for having some of the conversations that I’d like to have – there’s no need to compromise people to have those conversations for my research,” she said.
Online resources or archives outside China are used by researchers in the field, but China scholar and political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang says using these alone has drawbacks.
“China studies might head in a direction where research uses existing data sets and is highly quantitative, but scholars stop doing the fieldwork, interviews and immersive research that has defined the field and helped us understand the realities in China,” said Ang, an associate professor at the University of Michigan.
“It is in China’s interest to welcome foreign scholars to study China. If Beijing closes the doors, this will only lead to more speculation and misunderstanding about China overseas,” she said.
Evans, the Harvard PhD candidate, said the situation could convince some aspiring academics to retrain out of the China field or cause China to be “decentred” from research.
“For the political science field, if we make a very rough estimate that China is about 20 per cent of the world, and we can’t measure case studies in China, then that’s 20 per cent of our examples that could potentially be wrong, so that’s a huge measurement error if we exclude China,” he said.
Scholars say the issue is not just about travel to China. There is growing wariness about academic collaboration with China in the US and Europe, where Beijing is increasingly viewed as a strategic rival and violator of human rights.
The US has cracked down on intellectual property theft and fraudulent research funding arrangements, often targeting researchers with ties to Chinese institutions. Chinese postgraduate researchers deemed to have ties to military-linked entities are now blocked from receiving visas for study or research in the US.
Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes promoting the study of Chinese language and culture have been ejected from campuses across the US and Europe in recent years over propaganda and espionage allegations. The cancellation of US funding for mainland China and Hong Kong-based research under the Fulbright programme closed an avenue for scholars at American institutions.
This has had a chilling effect. A survey sent to members of the Association of Chinese Professors at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that 91 per cent of the faculty who had collaborations in China agreed that before 2018, their university encouraged those collaborations. But only 12 per cent still believed that to be the case in 2021.
A similar mood exists in Europe, according to d’Hooghe in the Netherlands.
“This is partially a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions, but it is also a consequence of a different climate in Europe, where people look with more caution at collaborations [with Chinese counterparts],” she said.
Worst to best
The suspicions make it more challenging for visiting Chinese researchers coming to the US, some scholars say, while others fear damage to overall academic exchange.
“One of the benefits of having these exchanges – going to conferences, being a visiting fellow – is that you get to form relationships, and that’s a two-way street,” said George Washington University’s Albert. “Hopefully there can be steps to remedy the chasm that is starting to grow.”
Szonyi, who has researched China for about three decades, said a “best case” would be that China relaxes its Covid-19 travel policy, and that “the archives are thrown open, and Chinese officials are keen to be interviewed by Western graduate students”.
“The next best case is that China adapts a more nuanced zero-Covid policy and we find mechanisms that allow genuine academic research to be conducted, subject to the bottom line restrictions of the Chinese government,” he said.
“It amazes me that this is what I’m calling a best case, because when I got started in this field that would be the worst case.”
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