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TL;DR

  • This post is about how to do good China-focused research. 
  • Work on several global priorities cause areas may require high-quality research on contemporary China. We believe that our community runs the risk of simply producing poor-quality work on China. 
  • We[1] interviewed fifteen researchers whose work involves the Chinese mainland, most of them based at universities in Western Europe. Among other things, we asked them about:
    • Crucial skills to do “good” China-focused research
    • Biases, pitfalls, and failure modes in China-focused research
  • This post is not a definitive guide on how to do China-focused research! In many ways, our interviews raised more questions than they provided answers.
  • The following are some of the insights we found most interesting. Note that these insights are pretty arbitrary in the sense that they are what happened to be on the mind of the non-representative group of experts that we included in our sample. We have no reasons for believing that the advice given covers all or even the most important things you should pay attention to as an aspiring researcher in the field. Some of the advice might also be wrong-headed altogether (it is not based on anything like an expert consensus). 
    • Interviewees mentioned a number of biases to beware of:
      • Assuming China to be a unitary actor, or ignoring domestic pluralism
      • Normative Judgements about China
      • Essentializing “the Chinese”
      • “Western” or Eurocentric bias
    • Academic research on China happens in two somewhat separated traditions
      1. Chinese Studies/Sinology
      2. “Regular” Disciplines (e.g. Political Science, Sociology, etc)
      • In theory, interviewees described both approaches as valuable in their own right
      • But in practice, there seems to be some unhealthy “rivalry” between these two approaches
    • Essentially all interviewees believed that Chinese language skills are important (for most kinds of China-focused research), and that translation services are useful but limited, as you can’t neatly separate technical language skills and contextual understanding necessary for asking the right research questions. However, there was still significant disagreement on the exact level one should aim for.
    • Interviewees also gave several other pieces of advice: 
      • Learn how to concisely and convincingly contextualize your work, such that readers with little familiarity with China understand the relevance and implications of your findings
      • Engage in academic debates (actively or through passive consumption)
      • Think about where you stand
      • Cultivate personal relationships and a strong network (esp. in the PRC)
  • We want to spark a discussion about the implications of our findings for our community. Please comment or send us your thoughts through this anonymous feedback form.
    • To what extent should China be treated as exceptional in our community’s research, communications, and other work?
    • Is our community treating China as too much of a unitary actor?
    • Does our community need original research on China? Or rather just analysis of existing knowledge on China?
    • How should researchers and/or orgs in our community respond to censorship pressures?
    • Divide between area studies/humanities vs. disciplinary focus: Which focus is more relevant for the kind of things global priorities research is interested in?
    • What’s the value of collaborations between Chinese and non-Chinese researchers? What should our community do to encourage/facilitate such collaboration?
  • This post is quite long. However, large parts consist of quotes from our interviews, which we believe makes it quite readable. 

Structure of this post

  • A short introduction that provides motivation for why we should care about how to do high-quality, China-focused research [here]
  • A more detailed description of what we did, i.e. our “methodology” [here]
  • The findings from our interviews, largely consisting of quotes. You will probably get a lot from this post by just reading the quotes. [here]
  • Some questions and thoughts that were sparked by this project and which seem especially relevant for our community. [here] We want you to discuss this with us!

Yet more preliminary remarks

Before jumping into the post, we want to give credit and appreciation to the friends and colleagues that looked through earlier drafts of this post and gave valuable feedback. Several parts have been reconsidered, revised, or restructured based on comments we received, which we believe has improved the output we can now present!

If you’re interested in working on projects or joining discussions related to the intersection of pressing problems and China, check out the The China & Global Priorities Group. We are an online group focused on supporting thinkers and builders working on China-focused global priorities problems. We are currently accepting applications and are onboarding new members.

Why care about how to do “good” China-focused research?

Work on several global priorities cause areas might require research on various aspects of contemporary China. Some readers of this forum might be considering China-related research career paths. Many of us feel confused about what kind of skills we should prioritize. 

When we started this project, we had a vague sense that poor-quality China-focused research[2] can become influential and harm other countries’ understanding of China. We were aware of some examples: the mistaken idea of “collapsism” (as criticized here) and the erroneous early reporting about China’s social credit system (for instance, see commentary by The SpectatorTrivium China, or Foreign Policy). We could not find any deep engagement with why and how these failures in China-focused research had happened or how they could have been avoided. 

We believe that our community is not immune to similar failure modes. Aside from this type of work being hard in general, we believe that the our community might be especially vulnerable to the risk of producing bad research on China as:

  • There are relatively few people working in this field. 
  • The community might research topics that are not covered by many analysts outside of the community focused on global priorities (such as China’s relevance for mitigating existential risks in the 21st century, Chinese philosophical debates on philanthropy and altruism, etc.). That means that there won’t be many other researchers to check our reasoning and point out errors. 

What is “good” China-focused research?[3] What are the most crucial skills specific to this field that an aspiring researcher needs to acquire? How could China-focused research go wrong?

What is this project, what specifically did we do?

We didn’t start this project with a fully developed roadmap in mind; rather, it was and is a work of exploration, with planning happening along the way. Here are the steps we took to figure out “how to do good China research”:[4]

  • In preparation for the interview project, we searched the Internet for literature on best practices / methodological advice for doing China-facing research, both using conventional academic sources as well as sources (organizations, forums) that are more closely connected to our community. Many of the questions in our interview template were inspired by that background research.
  • We conducted interviews with fifteen practicing “China scholars”, based on this template of questions
    • Our interviewees are all academically trained researchers (12 male, 3 female) who currently work at a university (12) or a think tank (3), mainly in Europe (the Netherlands, Denmark, and the UK) with one interviewee based in the United States. Together, they cover a rather wide range of academic fields, including China’s domestic politics and policies, history, law, anthropology and studies on China’s society, media environment and public opinion, as well as China’s foreign policy, diplomacy, and international affairs.
    • Most interviewees were selected from our existing networks, so most of them were scholars from our universities or those recommended to us by those same scholars.  
  • We collected notes and (partial) transcripts from each interview and spent some time trying to figure out how to synthesize notes across interviews, and analyze, interpret and present insights we gained. The blog post you are reading is a result of that effort.

We proceeded fairly unsystematically on all of the steps above[5] and are still unsure about how to perform the last one well (on data analysis and extracting findings). We do not claim to offer anything like a definitive answer or guide for how to do good China research. Instead, what we want to do is to inspire conversation in the EA community, especially on the issues raised in the last section! 

Takeaways

This section contains insights from our interviews, mostly in the form of anonymized quotes. The selection of quotes is very subjective and mostly based on whether we personally found the information interesting or valuable.[6] We attempted to group quotes thematically and to arrange those themes in a way that gives something like a narrative thread to the write-up. Our ordering is not meant to suggest anything like an importance ranking between the themes!  

Biases

Some of our interviewees mentioned different biases that are prevalent in China-focused research (and which reduce its quality/validity): 

Assuming China to be a unitary actor, or that all decisions just stem directly from Xi Jinping

In a reminder of domestic pluralism and warning against excessive state centrism, many interviewees cautioned against statements along the lines of “China does xyz” and “the Chinese believe xyz”. It is easy to forget that the CCP has more members than Germany has citizens:

"Xi Jinping’s day is also just 24 hours and he needs some sleep every so often. And we forget that there are 90 million plus other party members that may have something to say."

 

“They would rather hear about “the lockdowns, the censorship", rather than how ordinary people cope with that.” 

 

“So much is happening there at the same time, and also developments that are really countering each other … that I always tell my audiences, ‘There is not one story about China.’” 

Normative Judgements about China

Many interviewees mentioned the urge scholars may feel to represent China as either “bad” or “good”, both of which are not really helpful for understanding China well.

“We look at China more and more through ideologically or morally tinted glasses. We want to see things in China that we don’t like, we want to judge China. This whole idea about the detachment between what you see, and what you think about it, is disappearing. ”

Essentializing “the Chinese”

“I have a big frustration with students who write papers with an argument like ‘Confucianism says X, that is why the Chinese do Y.’ Show me actual data, don’t just say it is because of Confucianism.” 

An attitude that might help reduce this essentializing mindset:

“Look at Chinese society as a living place. Yes, it is governed by a communist party, but it is a place where people live, live meaningful lives that are actually not that different from our lives. Try to put a human face on China again.” 

However, some of our interviewees also warned against the other extreme - failing to recognize contextual information that is specific to China:

“Western” or Eurocentric bias: projecting that China’s development should follow similar patterns as that of Europe or the US

“[In] European [and] American history, there is the same pattern, you know, the same course: economic development leading to prosperity, prosperity leading to modernity, modernity leading to plural society, plural society leading to interest groups, interest groups leading to multi-party." 

One interviewee also hinted at a knowledge asymmetry here: Chinese scholars simply understand “Western” world views much better than “Western” scholars understand Chinese ones:

"It's because all the elites, all the professors, they are trained in the West. Like me, okay? … Chinese professors, they come here, they study, and so … they understand your logic. They understand your mind, the culture, the political tradition, political logics. But … do you understand Chinese?"

Connected to the idea of a Eurocentric bias in research, one of our interviewees criticized that reading lists in British universities are largely dominated by sources on China produced by non-Chinese authors. This may produce overall neglect of both primary and more contemporary sources. 

”Very quickly you will see the academics in China move in one direction, which is not picked up by the academics in the English-speaking world. [...] [Chinese academics] have produced scholarship, which, I believe, is worth noticing and taking seriously, to help people outside China understand China. I think that kind of literature has not come into China Studies in a systemic, serious way. [...] My sense is that … the new generation of [western] academic scholars have not had that collective sense of the importance, the value, and urgency of providing the students of Chinese Studies with … the necessary range of scholarship, in particular coming from China.”

Methodological exceptionalism?

The debate on how unique China is may also affect the research methods and theoretical frameworks used. Our interviewees had conflicting opinions here. Some emphasized the importance of approaching China from a comparative perspective, warning against the dangers of having in-depth knowledge of a single national system alone:

“I think many Western students need to learn more about their own country first. If we're talking about democracy, do you know when women got the vote in Switzerland? 1973.  [...] But also things like human rights. Do you know when France used the guillotine to chop the head off someone the last time? Guess! [I guess 19th century] Answer: 1977. And they kept one in full working order until I think 1981 just in case. [...] But so all of these things that we think are laws of nature and the common heritage of mankind, our common liberal achievement. Fuck it! You parents are older than them. [...] That’s why you should read, this is stuff you should know.”

 

"One of the biggest weaknesses of lots of China-focused work is that it’s focused only on China and doesn’t contextualize it enough"

Some argued that China doesn't really need to be treated differently from other research subjects in social science, and that the key importance lies in a good grasp of general disciplinary skills (social science methods, statistics, etc.):

"I do not see a big difference between … methodologies to be used in China Studies and America Studies.”

 

"If the [disciplinary] standard does not work in China, then there is something wrong with the standard.”

On the other hand, some interviewees also highlighted that there are contexts in which simply applying “Western” theories to China might not work well. For example, political contestation in liberal democracies often happens through election campaigns, which simply do not exist in China. As one of our interviewees put it: 

“If you apply that framework to China, I am very sorry my friend, but you are eating soup with a fork.”

In addition, there are some practical differences  that mean research in China may diverge from that done in WEIRD societies: 

“It means if you're going to do informal conversations with people in China, you have to slap out a legal form, throw it in front of their face, and scare them to death, before you can actually interview them. That’s a standard from Western medical and psychology research.” 

There are 2 different academic traditions in the study of China

When asking interviewees about methodological approaches to studying China, the discussion often turned towards the following broad typology of traditions:

  • “Humanities” approach / area studies / Sinology
    • Researchers want to understand China “on its own terms”, the place itself is the object of inquiry
    • Holistic approach, stresses connections between history, economics, culture, politics, etc
    • More common in European academic institutions
  • “Regular” disciplines
    • Scholars see themselves as belonging to disciplines like Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, etc.
    • The object of inquiry is more general (e.g. “how do center-local relations work in large countries?”)
    • China is then a case study / “just another country”
    • More common in US academic institutions
    • Several interviewees mentioned that the “top scholars” more often belong to this approach, that there is more funding, and that it is easier to be published

In theory, most of the interviewees included in our sample[7] agreed that both approaches are valuable, but also have their limitations. In an ideal world, you should try to get the best of both of them. But in reality, the relationship between the two camps is not rosy:

“Disciplinary grounded scholars increasingly put up their noses to Area Studies scholars as not scientific, not academic, not rigorous, theoretically naive, and whatever. Area Studies specialists look at those disciplinary people and say they are just a bunch of methodologically obsessed idiots who don't understand the first thing about China. [...]

[Disciplinary scholars] use methodologies to prove their worth to their peers in Political Science. And similar also with theory: you have to address certain theoretical pre-occupations, otherwise you don’t count [...] [Sometimes, what you can see is easy stereotypes that are then plugged into very sophisticated disciplinary methodologies and theories. But at the end of the day, [this type of research] ends up just re-producing a stereotype.”

It can also create weird incentive structures. For example, if you want to pursue a PhD or publish in certain journals, you may need to “comply” with the standards of whatever “camp” the PhD program or journal belongs to. One interviewee noted there are humanities China scholars writing up “fake” fancy methodology sections, to be published in journals with more disciplinary grounding:

“Basically what China scholars want to do is: go to China, spend time in villages or elsewhere, interview people, collect objects, take photos of temples, observe rituals. That's what they want to do. Forget it. No, you're not going to get money for that. Grant applications are increasingly judged against rigorous and rigid methodological and theoretical standards that are alien to many China specialists, especially those based in area studies or the humanities. So they need a story, why are you doing this, why is it relevant for sociologists, political scientists, economists or whatever. They have to pretend to be something that they are not.” 

To some extent, there is a trade-off many China scholars face: learning more about China, or more about the theories and methods of their respective disciplines:

“I’ve spent so much time learning about China that my grounding in methods and methodology is not in any way as solid as if I had studied anthropology and then taken on an interest in China. And it is … because the language is difficult, and because there is so much that we as China scholars need to know about China. So it’s actually a huge field. So it’s difficult to do both.”

As will be apparent from this whole blog post, we got diverging answers to many of the questions we asked throughout these interviews. This is also true for the topic of this section, where some interviewees explicitly deemphasized the conflict between the two traditions:

"There’s a lot of fear and loathing, especially among graduate students and untenured faculty, younger faculty, about ‘how am I going to meet those [disciplinary] standards?’ But I think a lot of people are doing it. And they’re certainly doing a lot better than 20 or 30 years ago, when I started.”

Spend time outside of the ivory tower

Aside from the obvious advice to go and live in China for a while to gain on-the-ground insights, some interviewees also emphasized the value in spending time outside of traditional knowledge production spaces.

“I think it's particularly useful for students - if you want to go on in research - take a year or two out and get your hands dirty. Go and work in government, go and work in a large company, go and work in any environment, which isn't just about pursuing idealists ideas. Very often what one finds, not just with BA students, if you've never left the university, your work tends to be artificial and it tends to be uninformed by the constraints and realities of how real people operate in the real world.”

 

“[It’s also important] to have some personal relationships with Chinese speakers, so that you can get a real understanding of a real Chinese person. So your knowledge is not secondary in the sense that you read about it, but you feel about it. So it’s not, let’s say, structured knowledge, which means information, but you have a direct feeling and understanding, which is not through rational reasoning, [i.e.] reading or having an interview. So that’s a very different type of experience. I would call it a real experience rather than a secondary experience.”

Language

Most interviewees emphasized the importance of Mandarin language skills:

“You can get an understanding of existing scholarship by using English material, but if you really want to contribute something new on the boundary of existing knowledge, you will almost always need Chinese.”

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get one precise and definitive recommendation for the level of linguistic ability to aim for: interviewees provided quite different answers to this question and many of them also pointed out that the language requirements differ greatly depending on the kind of work you do. Some  different language proficiency goals included:

“[being able] to have a conversation at least at the intermediate level and hopefully at an advanced level, which means you can really understand Chinese speakers talking at a professional level rather than just at the everyday life level”

 

“If your Chinese is strong enough for you to converse, to do your research, and [...] engage in everyday conversations [...], but also to read the specialized vocabulary in your area, that’s good enough.”

 

“By discipline, there are huge differences. I mean, as a historian of China, for example, being able to read the written word is far more important. Whereas say, an ethnographer, an anthropologist doing ethnographic research in some part of the Sinosphere, lacking spoken skills would be an even bigger problem”

 

“I would say that spoken Chinese is actually becoming less important.”

 

“The language skills, for me, are not that … important. Because otherwise it would be impossible for many to study China. I would say, [...] you don’t need to be really advanced in the Chinese language to do [research on the country].”

 

“[Learn Chinese] as best as [you] can [...] But you also have to recognize that you will always continue to learn.”

There are two potential ways to compensate for low language skills:

  • Collaboration with native/advanced Mandarin speakers
  • Assistance from machine translation

There was no consensus on how far these two options can take you as a researcher, but the experts we interviewed mostly seemed skeptical. One interviewee discussed Chinese-speaking research assistants being a “great help, even for researchers who themselves know Chinese”. We understood this collaboration to be useful but limited, as you can’t neatly separate technical language skills and contextual understanding necessary for asking the right research questions. 

“I use machine translations on a regular basis just to skim through a document and to see whether it's interesting. But then you still need that ability to identify the relevant keywords and to critique, to have enough sense to know that ‘wait a minute, here, the machine translation is doing something weird, I need to be careful with that’ or ‘here is a concept that we use in English as well, but it may have different meanings. So I need to be careful with that.’”

 

“If you always rely on others’ translation, there could be something missing. [...] The meaning will always be [...] changed, during cross-cultural translation.”

Censorship, of multiple sorts

Several of our interviewees expressed concern about pervasive self-censorship in research on China: they highlighted pressures to suppress particular ideas when selecting research questions, designing methodology, or communicating research findings. For example, one interviewer advised us to avoid basing any research in Beijing in 2022.

“I think everybody who works with China or in China self-censors. Period.”

 

“So we all have this balancing act: if we want access to China … that it's not that we can't be critical, but if we're too critical, we will lose access. And that's just how it is.”

 

“Self-censorship is often very subtle. You will think twice before starting your PhD about ethnic conflict in Tibet, and maybe just do it about traffic regulation instead.” 

As suggested in the quotes above, some of our interviewees were convinced that this affects everybody seeking to do research on China with information from China. However, a few others also highlighted characteristics that make researchers exceptionally vulnerable to self-censorship pressures: being highly motivated by career-building, job security, or funding opportunities; being a Chinese national, or having friends or family in-country; working in politicized settings; or relying on personal networks in China.

In contrast to all this, we also heard from China researchers who think that issues with self-censorship are exaggerated...

“A lot is being made of self-censorship, especially by … people who aren't scholars, who look at China specialists. But my answer to that is just: Read the academic journals! There's a lot of really critical stuff in there that's very useful, and that the Communist Party in China would not want to see published, and will not let be published within China. [...] I can't think of anyone who has deliberately covered up bad things that they've found out. In fact, that makes an article more publishable, in an academic journal.”

… or who point out that self-censorship can cut many different ways, i.e., that pressures to shift one’s research in a certain direction, or frame it a certain way, do not stem only from Chinese authorities:

“You are dismissed as a China apologist because you do not say it is all bad.” 

 

“[The editor of a book I published a chapter in] wanted me to be much more direct and much more critical. Even when I didn't think it was warranted. [...] It's not just Chinese political censorship, it's also the climate in the west which has shifted.“

When navigating sensitive issues associated with state-led information control, understanding of potential “red lines” or implications for the individual researcher may be either overly or insufficiently risk-averse. There was similarly little consensus on how easy it is to know which subjects or keywords are politically sensitive. One interviewee, for example, said: 

“There's a clear boundary of what you can say [and] what you cannot [say] under this political context. [...] As long as you note boundaries.. as long as you're not shouting in the street [...] Not a problem.”

Communicating your research

Express uncertainty

We probably don’t have to tell readers of this forum about transparent communication of uncertainties. Being aware of your uncertainties is probably the first step:

“The trick is intellectual and empirical modesty. The world is huge. It's far more complex than you will ever be able to grasp. And you need to start from that position.”

 

"[there are] no authorities in humanities and social sciences" 

But it appears that communicating these uncertainties effectively to your audience is hard, and not necessarily rewarded, especially if the audience does not have much China-related knowledge:

"Your message needs to be very easy and interesting. If you mention someone like Li Keqiang, you probably already lost your audience, with just one name that is not Xi Jinping. There is not much room for nuance in public discourse about China.”

 

“Very often we don’t [properly communicate uncertainties] because as scholars we are rewarded for demonstrating certainty and being confident in our arguments. Rather than sometimes also saying ‘we don’t know’.” 

Aside from institutional structures that make good-faith communication of uncertainties difficult to implement in practice, we also had at least one interviewee give a warning in something like the opposite direction, pointing out that caution in the communication of research findings can lead to indecisiveness and thus reduce a researcher’s ability to contribute meaningfully to important debates:

“I think, generally, it’s almost that people should be more outspoken, not less. [...] Because you reach more people, if you have a clearer view on something. [...] If you keep wanting to emphasize nuance, you reduce your ability to influence the debate. And, in the end, as an academic, that’s also what you’re expected to do, to speak your mind, you know? So if you don’t do that, you’re not really fulfilling your function as an intellectual or as an academic in society."

Learn how to concisely and convincingly contextualize your work

Depending on your audience, it is likely that you will know much more about the subject area of your work than your readers, editors, or publishers. This may be doubly true for work on China in a world where global Chinese literacy is still relatively low. You might need to spend time or space in a presentation, funding application, or paper title adding clarifying details and context to explain why your work is important. This has a cost and may often feel like elaborating on things that should be common knowledge. 

Engage in academic debates (actively or through passive consumption)

Another way to obtain a variety of perspectives is to follow, and possibly engage actively in, academic debates. Two ways to do that were explicitly recommended to us in the interviews:

  • Attend academic conferences and listen to debates on topics that interest you
  • Read the introductory sections of PhD theses (esp. from now-famous China scholars)

Think about where you stand

Positionality’ is a term from anthropology to describe how a researcher’s attributes, such as age and gender, may influence their ability to do research, particularly during interviews or participant observation. Whether or not you are perceived as part of an in-group - of Chinese nationals, for example - may confer you certain benefits such as trust. One interesting example of this might be the way in which limited language proficiency might be helpful in interview-based research, as you may be able to ask an interviewee to repeat themselves.

“Being a foreign researcher can be a big advantage in doing fieldwork in China [...] research on activism in China is hard for Chinese citizens and/or people located in China [...] I hope that’s done by … others, outside of China, though.”

A similar call for young researchers to think about their role and contribution was made by another interviewee, who highlighted somewhat different - more skeptical, or cautious - implications:

“We need to ask ourselves: Why would a non-Chinese be better at studying China than a Chinese?” In the 1960s, Chinese maybe could not study China, or at least did not have any disciplinary training. But nowadays, a lot of great young China scholars are from China and then do graduate degrees abroad, also in humanities and social sciences. Language, our understanding of context, etc will always be worse. So what is it that we can add?”

Cultivate personal relationships and a strong network

“You will never get a chance to build a guanxi network like Chinese. You will never have spent four years in a dorm with 10 other people as an undergraduate. That's where the big sort of connections in government lie, for instance.”

A third recommendation for guarding against a narrow, and thus failure-prone, views is to surround yourself with people and communities of diverse backgrounds. Such communities and connections are also important in the practical sense of giving you opportunities to collaborate with others who might bring different skill sets. Examples of particularly fruitful collaborations mentioned were projects with skilled Chinese nationals who might otherwise face barriers to getting published in English-language journals due to the emphasis on written presentation.

Another benefit of these personal relationships and networks is the unique aid they can give to those who aim to do on-the-ground research in China. 

“When I was in China for one year of field work, I spent the first 6 months just getting access to the people I really wanted to talk with. For 6 months I had not done a single interview.”

Implications for our community

The majority of our interviewees were academic researchers. As such, answers should be interpreted in the context of how to add to the academic scholarship on contemporary China as an aspiring young researcher. That said, some of this advice could also be useful to those in other areas of research, policy, consultancy, or community-building.

So what should “we” in this community take away from this project? We don’t think we have a very good answer to this yet. In fact, one main contribution of this post might be to spark elaboration or disagreement (so please comment!). That said, here are some of our current ideas on how the interview findings presented above might relate to China-focused research within our Community. 

How exceptional is China? 

  • A lot of our interviewees mentioned this in one way or another. In short, there are two pitfalls for China-focused research: assuming that China is totally different from other countries, or assuming that China is much the same as other countries. 
  • We feel that some form of Chinese exceptionalism is quite prevalent in our community at this point, seen in the different approach to community building and outreach used in China. 
    • We often see ideas about expressing global priorities content in a more “Chinese” way, for example by using traditional Chinese concepts. We never hear someone advocate for expressing this content in the vocab of Immanuel Kant for German audiences.
    • 80k says we need “China specialists”, but we do not need “America specialists”. 
  • We do not think that any of the above are necessarily mistaken or “bad” approaches.
  • But we do think that it would be healthy for this community to discuss a bit more explicitly what justifies implicit assumptions of “Chinese exceptionalism” and whether it might be detrimental in some contexts.

China as a unitary actor

  • Many interviewees warned against statements along the lines of “China does xyz”, “the Chinese believe xyz”. There are multiple different actors in China and you need to be clear who you are referring to. The Chinese government? The Party? The general public? If the government, which part of the government? Which ministry? Local or central? 
  • In a way, this is an obvious point and nobody would disagree. But since interviewees pointed out several times that commentary on China often falls prey to undue simplifications/generalizations like those mentioned above, we think that this is potentially an important lesson/reminder for our community. We thus want to suggest that it may be beneficial from a clarity and impact point of view for the community to specify the segment of China we are referring to when performing China-related research.

Does work on global priorities need original research on China? Or rather just analysis of existing knowledge on China?

  • As an academic China scholar, you will probably spend years filling one tiny gap in the existing literature by conducting lots of original primary research. As a researcher working more closely with policymakers, you often just synthesize existing knowledge into a way that is understandable to these audiences. 
  • Some interviews hinted at a difference here, also with implications for the skills needed:
    • For example: “You can get an understanding of existing scholarship by using English material, but if you really want to contribute something new on the boundary of existing knowledge, you will almost always need Chinese.”
    • Another interviewee told us that their work is more about understanding the knowledge gaps of Western politicians they are advising. As for understanding China, they mostly just rely on existing research of accomplished China scholars.
  • An additional, somewhat cross-cutting category of knowledge contribution that wasn’t mentioned by our interviewees is analysis that uses existing research and looks at it from a new perspective.
  • It seems valuable both for individuals and for the community at large to think about this: do we need to create our own research on “new” topics, scrutinize existing research, or do we just need to better understand certain aspects of China which basically already have been researched? 

How should researchers and/or organizations in our community respond to censorship pressures?

  • There are different kinds/sources of (self-)censorship pressures: 
    • Sources: Chinese state/party; academic publishers (outside or inside China); popular media; public opinion/expectations; governments from other countries 
    • Tone: more vs. less critical of China (or of actors within China)
    • Topics: avoid vs. focus on sensitive (or “negative”) topics/problems
    • Attitudes: questions of how to classify Taiwan, which terminology to use (e.g. CCP vs. CPC; re-education vs. concentration camps)
  • There is a trade-off between the risks/harms of conforming to (self-)censorship pressures from the Chinese state and the risks/harms of defying those pressures.
    • Both can reduce the quality of the knowledge produced, which potentially leads to worse decisions.
    • Both can reduce the (perceived and actual) integrity and credibility of individual researchers and research communities, which can lead to reduced influence (of the research community & individual researchers), reduced opportunities for collaboration with other researchers/research communities (for research community & individual researchers), and weakened career prospects (for individual researchers). 
      • [Another potential, though more indirect and hard-to-grasp, consequence: giving up/compromising on integrity may “corrupt” a researcher’s character and approach more broadly, gradually and over the long term]
    • A consequence of conforming to (self-)censorship pressures: problems (injustices, suffering, etc) and threats remain undetected and/or undiscussed, which means that they are more likely to remain unresolved and/or grow worse (unaccountability of power)
    • A potential consequence of defying (self-)censorship pressures: yourself, or people connected to you, are put in danger of state retaliation [especially relevant for those residing inside the PRC, or who have family and/or close friends living in the PRC]
  • This raises the question: How should these risks be traded off against each other by researchers? What trade-off should our community as a whole aim for (if any)? Are there ways individual researchers could be supported in navigating censorship/ relevant decisions and pressures?
  • Possible heuristics/considerations for making the trade-off:
    • How bad/concerning are the downsides of either approach?
    • How do “China researchers” outside of our community seem to make the trade-off? What does that imply for how “EA-aligned China researchers” should think about the trade-off? (-> Considerations of neglectedness and comparative advantage? Or: Existing practice as an example to emulate?)
    • Precautionary principle, which might imply that we should make sure that potentially sensitive research on China is not seen as connected to our community in any way (this is based on specific assumptions about which risks we want to be cautious of, though)

Divide between area studies/humanities vs. disciplinary focus: Which focus is more relevant for the kinds of things our community is interested in?

  • Interviewees mentioned repeatedly that it is hard to acquire both an Area Studies and a disciplinary expertise on China (i.e., lots of empirical knowledge of China’s culture, society, political & econ system, etc, and an ability to work with social science theories and methodologies). This means that (young) researchers have to make a trade-off/strike the right balance for themselves. We think that this is quite relevant not just for academic research broadly, but also for those who want to do “EA-aligned” research work on China. In fact, the challenge might actually be even more pronounced for those people, to the extent that “EA-type research” might require: 
    • Knowledge about China
    • Fluency in Social Science methods
    • Global priorities or longtermist-specific methods (back of the envelope calculations (BOTEC), forecasting, cost-benefit analysis, …)
  • This seems to raise questions for our community:
    • What knowledge and skills should individuals who want to become “China experts” focus on in their education?
    • Which kinds/mixes of people should orgs in our community consult when faced with a question that requires expertise on China?
  • Considerations for answering these questions:
    • What does our community “need China expertise for”? / What kind of China expertise does our community need most?
    • Given those needs, how relevant are skills and knowledge resources from different traditions in China scholarship?

Research done in collaboration between Chinese and non-Chinese nationals looks like a promising way to overcome some of the barriers associated with doing good China research

  • Several interviewees mentioned collaboration with Chinese-speaking colleagues as a way of reducing risks associated with language (e.g. barriers to Chinese f getting published in English-language journals, issues in quality or speed associated with non-Chinese natives working in Chinese language contexts). 
  • Aiming for diversity in one’s collaboration might also serve to reduce the biases and  knowledge gaps of the respective authors. 
  • Positive role in virtue signalling of international collaboration? 

Final Words of Encouragement

This post might make it seem like researching China is incredibly hard and there are so many things that can go wrong. Probably that is true. But if you have read this post all the way up to the end, you probably deserve a more positive note to finish:

"There's just so much information out there that no one is looking at. [...] There's a whole bunch of stuff.. we urgently need more people who do that.” 

 

“Keep an open mind. [...] You should feel like you’re engaged in a more challenging intellectual enterprise. And you should not be discouraged. Because I think the rewards are large. [...] If you can find the key to unlock some answers to some interesting questions about China, I think people will be very, very welcoming.”

 

“My final piece of advice is to be patient and to persevere. Conducting research on China can be challenging, but it is also very rewarding.” (GPT-3)

Thank you for reading. Did any of the ideas expressed surprise you? Did any of them seem to have particularly strong counterarguments that weren’t mentioned? What concerns you about present-day research on China?

 

 

  1. ^

    Throughout this post, “we” refers to a few of the members of the EA/China GPC Group; at the time of working on this project, were supported by EA Cambridge. The group is now called The China & Global Priorities Group.

  2. ^

    Defining what we mean by “China-focused research” is complicated and simple at the same time: Both ourselves and our expert interviewees are conflicted about how to define and delineate “the field of China scholarship/research”. Because of that, we refrained from settling on a precise description and instead chose the term “China-focused research” to encompass any investigation with some focus on (contemporary) China, spanning diverse disciplines and not confined to an academic setting (i.e., we also consider research done outside of university, e.g. at a think tank).

  3. ^

    We have largely thought of research as “good” in the traditional sense: work that conveys a certain sense of reliability, validity and robustness of findings, rather than as work which leads to desirable outcomes. For example, it is possible that work which is very “good” by conventional academic standards, such as methodologically sound work on fast developments in Chinese AI, may risk fueling a catastrophic “race to the bottom” for AI leadership, depending on how it is communicated or received. Internally, we also started using the term “not-so-bad research” instead of “good research”. It seems more accurate as a description of what China-focused researchers can plausibly aim for at this stage, given the complexity of China-related research topics and the lack of high-quality evidence to improve and predictively test models. However, we realize that that sounds a bit weird and possibly off-putting to readers, so we’ll use the more conventional (but, in our opinion, less well-fitting) term “good research” in the post.

  4. ^

     These activities happened roughly in the order presented, though several were also undertaken simultaneously. 

  5. ^

    The literature search was not comprehensive and has no clear inclusion/exclusion criteria for sources and search strategies; the question template was shaped by what we find interesting (and relevant); the selection of interviewees was based on convenience and accessibility; and the interviews themselves were basically normal conversations (none of us have much training for how to conduct social scientific interviews).

  6. ^

    While going through the interview notes and comparing what different experts said, we found it difficult to evaluate how much weight and credence to give to different information. We still don’t really know, so one of our goals for this blog post is to spark a discussion on that question - we’d be excited to hear what people in this Forum think about the ideas listed below (and how you all think “aspiring researchers” like ourselves should treat advice of that kind more generally)!

  7. ^

     It is true of all our insights that there is a decent chance that a different (or larger) set of interviewees would have given us a different range of views, but the point is particularly salient in this case. Without having done much background investigations on the topic, we would guess that there are substantial portions of the field of China-focused research which would express more one-sided opinions on the value of one or the other of these two approaches. Thus, this section in particular is shaped by our sample of interview partners and could look very different had we sampled differently.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:11 PM

Thank you for this article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading and thought it was really illuminating! 

The  essentialization of chinese people and the chinese state seem to me to be particularly harmful and dominating a lot of the popular discussion and analysis on China. It doesn't help that the there is a large language and cultural barrier to interaction with chinese people, and that the chinese state is quite opaque in the way it organizes and acts. If you could recommend any additional literature or news sources of good and accessible China scholars in English, I'd be very grateful.


> “I’ve spent so much time learning about China that my grounding in methods and methodology is not in any way as solid as if I had studied anthropology and then taken on an interest in China. And it is … because the language is difficult, and because there is so much that we as China scholars need to know about China. So it’s actually a huge field. So it’s difficult to do both.”

This seems to be a sad but common issue in a lot of fields: Those who are supposed to be good friends don't really appreciate each other, because they compete for the same sources of funding and often come to different, even opposing, results in their research.  Here in Germany for example the quant. sociologists founded their own organization a while ago because they felt marginalized by the qual. research-oriented majority.  

In the particular case of China studies, the case for collaboration seems to be quite obvious: If researchers with methodological expertise collaborate with those with cultural and language expertise, the complexity and quality of the research should increase 

Interesting also the second point you bring up on Sociology in Germany! I agree that collaborations between researchers who come with slightly different types of expertise could be super valuable. 

Do you have any ideas how to promote it in practice though? As you say, various incentive structures are not really made for that. I also find that surprisingly often, researchers just really rather want to prove why "their" approach is better, rather than try to understand how another approach could help them better understand the world. 

All this makes me feel slightly pessimistic^^ But I would be super glad to hear ideas on how to overcome these difficulties. 

Hi Anton, glad to hear that you found this post valuable!

On your first question, I think could check out the Sinica Podcast. I believe it is one of the sources on China that is quite accessible, but still tries really hard to go below the surface of issues they cover.  Of course just my personal recommendation.

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