Andreas Fulda is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham and author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (Routledge, 2020).
In Germany, a public debate about the current state of China studies has erupted. Rivalling op-eds appeared in Germany’s flagship centrist newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Alpermann and Schubert argued that ‘tactical compromises’ were necessary to conduct field research in China (F.A.Z., 9 March). Fulda, Ohlberg, Missal, Fabian and Klotzbuecher responded that China-related knowledge production should not be subject to censorship and self-censorship (F.A.Z., 16 March). At the heart of the debate are the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) autocratic power, researcher positionality, and academic freedom.
The dispute comes at a time of paradigmatic change in German politics. In response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine Chancellor Scholz recently announced a ‘watershed’ (Zeitenwende) in the history of Europe. Scholz, a Social Democrat, is leading Germany’s first ‘traffic light’ coalition with the Liberals and Greens. Germany’s government has made the protection of academic freedom at home and abroad a priority.
There are signs that the German higher education sector is adjusting to the new reality. In an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung President of the German Rectors’ Conference Peter-André Alt had this to say about cooperation with authoritarian-ruled countries: ‘We will certainly approach collaborations more cautiously in the future and discontinue some‘ (author’s translation). From now on, risks would be weighted more heavily.
Points of contention
The contentious op-eds in F.A.Z. reveal that leading German China experts do not see eye to eye in their respective assessment of rapid (geo-)political change. Yet they share the commonality of having worked under the watchful eye of the Chinese party-state. It should also be mentioned that Alpermann and Schubert’s research does address critical issues as well. It is therefore not quite clear what motivates them to enter the fray.
In the field of China studies, at least twelve points of contention can be identified. They are not static but can be understood as opposite poles on a continuum. Points of contention relate to (1) attitudes, (2) political and emotional dimensions, as well as to the realm of (3) academic cooperation with China. Discourse participants assess these criteria differently and mixed results are likely. Resulting disagreements are not new. Discussions have taken place via numerous media outlets (LibMod, APuZ, China.Table, and F.A.Z) and accompanying online commentary has fragmented along different platforms (LinkedIn, Twitter, Research Gate, and H-Asia). To date, no attempts have been undertaken to bring all strands together and provide an overview. The following explanations seek to enhance discourse participants’ reflexivity in the debate about positionality in China studies.
When it comes to academic freedom, positions diverge: either discourse participants insist that there should be no compromises in China-related knowledge production or they believe that tactical compromises or concessions are necessary.
Field research is another sticking point. Is it necessary to fully understand China, especially under the conditions of censorship, preference falsification and restricted access to what could be termed ‘unofficial China’? Other China scholars disagree: field research in China is considered a sine qua non.
Another hot button issue is self-censorship. There are those who consider it an unavoidable aspect, especially when there is need of ’embedded’ field research in China. While others grudgingly acknowledge that self-censorship exists, they think that they can manage and that self-censorship is not a big deal.
Viewpoints also diverge on the question whether German China scholarship avoids politically sensitive topics and the majority of research on China does not question the official narratives of the Chinese party-state. Not true, the detractors say.
Whether there can be value neutral research on China is another point of contention. Some contend that China scholarship inevitably has a political dimension. Other academics promote value neutral research on China to avoid political bias. They argue that understanding China from within helps to understand developments which could overcome blind spots from a Western perspective.
Criticists are saying that the CCP bears responsibility for many political disasters and crimes against humanity. The CCP has not learned from its mistakes, but has become better at highlighting its successes and manipulating the historical narrative. Other discourse participants are more charitable. The counter-argument is that the CCP has learned from its past mistakes and that it has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty since the early 1980s.
Another discord relates to the value of intercultural dialogue with China. One group of scholars sees value in withholding judgment in individual encounters, but not at the expense of suspending judgment of pathologies in China’s political system. We should ‘mistrust and verify’. Others suggest that we are not in a position to judge the country’s political system because of its diverging culture and historical trajectory and logic and that we should give the CCP the ‘benefit of doubt’.
Another argument relates to the amount of critique in German China studies. Aren’t dark sides of autocratic CCP rule being neglected by the proverbial ‘China-Versteher’, the China empathisers? Not so, the other side retorts. The ‘China-Bashers’ supposedly only highlight the country’s problems.
China studies are not immune to geopolitical tensions. One camp sees China as a systemic rival and economic competitor, whereas the other considers China a partner, at times also a competitor but not as a systemic rival.
Critics point out that German universities are not sufficiently transparent and accountable about funding from China. Nothing to see here, tenured professors reply. They claim that funding from China is limited and that there are no meaningful dependencies to speak of.
Critics have made the case for German universities to develop new policies and protocols which strengthen due diligence in academic cooperation with China. Others worry that such changes would make it harder to develop institutional partnerships based on personal connections with colleagues in China.
A final point of contention relates to dangers of legal, extralegal or illegal technology transfer in the STEM subjects. German universities need to be mindful of the CCP’s civilian-military fusion. There is need for greater risk analysis. Not everyone is convinced of the need for more regulation. Based on this thinking German scientists should not be restricted in their collaboration with Chinese partners on topics which concern global public goods.
Paradigm change on the cards?
Kissinger is often quoted as saying that academic disputes tend to be vicious since the ‘stakes are so low’. But as the discussion has shown, there are also exceptions to this rule. The future of China studies in Germany is hotly debated precisely since the stakes are in fact fairly high. At stake is not only the future shape of scholarship on contemporary China.
What is simultaneously being negotiated are the contours of Germany’s future China policy. The Foreign Ministry has been tasked to develop a new strategy. As Germany’s contentious China debate has shown, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Rectors’ Conference and learned societies need to be involved in strategic planning, too.
HEPI’s recent webinar on ‘Understanding China’ can be watched here.