Focus topics

Katja Levy – advocate of dialogue and exchange

Sinologist and political scientist Katja Levy

When Katja Levy was faced with the choice of a field of study after graduating from school, she purposely chose the greatest possible challenge: “I really wanted to study the most difficult language in the world.” Levy has not regretted this decision – today, the sinologist and political scientist conducts research on social activism in China at the University of Manchester. “I’m fascinated by how people care about others – even in a politically authoritarian system.” To this end, she seeks dialogue with Chinese organizations and scientists – in the past often on the ground in China, since the beginning of the Covid pandemic in online interviews.

Dialogue has been a recurring theme throughout Levy’s career. After her studies in Hamburg and Shanghai, academic positions were very rare at first. Levy worked for Siemens in Shanghai for four years. She loved living in the Chinese metropolis, she says. But working for an international corporation was not the right thing for her in the long run. She then received an offer from the German Bundestag: Levy became a research assistant to Antje Vollmer, a Green Party member and Vice President of the Bundestag at the time, and was responsible for China and Tibet policy.

Optimism in the red-green government

Her Berlin years were very defining, Levy says today. There was a great sense of optimism in the red-green government. Many policy areas were fundamentally redefined, including China policy. “The goal was a new dialogue,” Levy says. One of the ideas was the foreign policy instrument of the Rule of Law Dialogue: The German and Chinese governments signed an agreement to engage in more dialogue on rule of law and human rights issues – at political, academic and civil society levels. Levy organized and managed the two-way exchange in the background. “It was a perfect time for it: China was very open to legal advice at the time.” In 2001, the People’s Republic joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and had to align its legal system with international standards.

Levy’s time in Berlin politics ended with the red-green defeat in the 2005 federal elections. She was now writing her thesis, and her subject remained the same: the rule-of-law dialogue with China. She spent entire summers in dusty basements of the Ministry of Justice poring over files, she recalls. “But I loved it: academic work has always been my passion.” Since then, Levy has worked on rotating research projects and universities, studying charity as well as the impact of digitization on China’s society and workforce. Until 2019, she was a junior professor at the Free University of Berlin. In Manchester, she is currently working on a study comparing voluntary work in China and England.

Commitment is steered in desired directions

“It’s not as easy to become socially committed in China today,” says Levy. In the 1990s and early 2000s, things were quite different: “Back then, civil society was flourishing, new organizations were springing up.” Today, the state steers involvement in desired directions. While the government is dependent on help, for example in geriatric care or education, when it comes to issues of politics, religion or feminism, social commitment is neither asked for nor permitted. “I’m often amazed at how much happens regardless. People find their niches to show commitment.” And that is despite the high personal pressure that the Chinese working world exerts on many people.

For her scientific work, she is always on the lookout for contacts that open doors – in charity foundations, for example. To gain authentic insights, it’s important to establish trusted connections, she says. Research has become more difficult – because of the pandemic, but also because of increased political restrictions. “You have to be careful not to put anyone in danger.”

We need to keep communication channels open

Nevertheless, she insists that scientific relations should not be severed under any circumstances. Levy already discussed this position earlier in an article for China.Table. “We need to keep communication channels open – especially when political dialogue is becoming difficult.” Academic exchanges and on-the-ground research help provide a nuanced picture of China and its diverse and complex society. “It’s important to work with people, not just data on the Internet.” Relationships established in the process are an important asset: “It can take years for someone to gain trust and reveal background information in an interview. Cutting them off would mean a huge loss of knowledge.” Jan Wittenbrink


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