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German China research must not isolate itself

By Katja Levy
Katja Levy researches at the University of Manchester

In his opinion piece in the Tagesspiegel of May 11, Thorsten Benner takes up a very important question regarding China. Should a scientist still travel for research purposes to a country whose domestic political control has tightened significantly in recent years? Should one still conduct field research in a country where foreigners are no longer automatically privileged and exempt from many penalties (as was once the case)? And should one keep up the exchange with scientists in a country, even if one has to be careful not to get one’s interlocutors into trouble by thoughtless statements? The answer is: Yes, absolutely! For the following reasons:

1. research on China cannot be conducted solely on the basis of internet research and travel to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China is far too large, its society far too complex, its political developments far too rapid and disruptive to be viewed from the outside alone. It is necessary to do research on the ground and interpret the results – preferably against the background of many years of experience in China. You have to talk to the people. You have to hear how they see things, what results the research there produces and how social and political developments are justified there. This does not mean adopting Chinese interpretations and explanations as one’s own. But scientific honesty demands that a complete picture be formed. Incidentally, a knowledge of Chinese is certainly helpful for this, because only a fraction of the information about China – even on the Internet – is translated into other languages.

2. China research today is an empirical science that is no longer conducted only about China, but also with China. At the time of the Cold War, when Mao’s China was isolating itself in foreign policy terms, there were in principle two types of sinology. The philological branch, strong in Germany, turned away from the People’s Republic of China and concentrated entirely on the study of the classical philosophical writings of antiquity. The other, regional studies branch, particularly influenced by the United States, was interested in the China of the time (for military-strategic reasons), but also had no direct access to the isolated People’s Republic. By interpreting documents smuggled abroad as well as photographs and by interviewing refugees outside the country, Sinology tried to fathom what was going on in the country. Parallel to “Kremlin astrology” about the Soviet Union, “Zhongnanhaiology,” the “teaching about Zhongnanhai,” named after the Chinese seat of government in Beijing, emerged about China. This early form of political interpretation was very prone to error.

In the meantime, research on China has developed considerably, partly because the country has opened up. The humanities branch is, by its very nature, still primarily attached to the study of texts and documents. But social science research on China has long since become a strongly empirical science, methodologically and theoretically trained in sociology, political science and human geography. It is by no means intellectually too simplistic (as sometimes portrayed) to form its own critical and fact-based picture of reality in China. Both branches of China research have been characterized by intensive exchange with Chinese scholars since the 1980s at the latest. In 2021, the German Rectors’ Conference alone counted more than 1,400 German-Chinese university cooperations. This does not even include the countless individual research projects and collaborations, study visits and dissertation projects with Chinese research partners.

3. Exchanges with Chinese academics and on-site research are important (primary) sources of information about China as a world power, also beyond academia, for example for political decision-makers and economic actors. The number of foreign journalists in China has recently been radically reduced (incidentally, in response to similar actions in the US under the Trump administration). The work of political foundations there has also been severely restricted by China’s strict 2017 NGO law. This leaves us without important first-hand sources of information on the ground. With not even scholars going to China now, we are completely reliant on the internet and secondary literature. A balanced image of China that does justice to the pluralism of this complex and diverse society and should be the basis for wise foreign policy and economic decisions can no longer be produced in this way.

4. China research, like research in general, is a reciprocal process. Contact with Chinese colleagues is ultimately not only a question of information for us, but also for the Chinese scientists there. They may be subject to their own political and social constraints, but they are still interested in exchanges with other countries and open to new ideas, especially in times of restricted Internet and media access. It is important for Western scientists to cooperate with Chinese colleagues in those areas in which China is conducting, or will soon conduct, cutting-edge research. Knowledge production has become a global and networked process. If Germany’s scientists were to really isolate themselves from China, German scientific and technological development would be hit hard in many areas.

5. China researchers, like other regional scholars, have a mediating function. They not only convey information, but explain, promote understanding between cultures and societies, and build trust. This is an incremental process that takes decades and has great potential for conflict resolution. It would be a great loss to jeopardize the social and cultural capital that has been built up over decades of cooperation by breaking off or even interrupting scientific contacts.

In his article, Thorsten Benner warns against the mistake of excluding researchers sanctioned by China, who for the time being can no longer travel to China, from parliamentary hearings or expert meetings, among other things. This is, of course, true, but looking at the agendas of the upcoming events, one does not get the impression that this is the case. In the current situation, which is characterised by alienation and a lack of information, it would, however, be equally foolish to ignore the China scholars, who still have the opportunity to get a picture of the situation on the ground.

Dr. Katja Levy was Junior Professor of Politics and Law of China at the FU Berlin from 2012 to 2019 and is currently conducting research at the University of Manchester.

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