Kristin Shi-Kupfer’s fascination with China first began with an episode of MacGyver. This particular episode was about the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing and the June 4th massacre. “The MacGyver episode was a fictional story, of course, but the real-life background of the story grabbed me,” Shi-Kupfer says.
A few years later, Shi-Kupfer enrolled in sinology and political science at the University of Trier. She didn’t speak any Mandarin back then and had never been to China. “For many in this country, the language sounds a bit strange and it takes effort to replicate the sounds,” she says. She found it helpful to think of the language as a kind of melody.
Thesis on religious groups in China
Her studies, which included obligatory stays abroad, eventually took her to China. She spent two years in Shanghai and Kaifeng. “For some, it was too much; too many people, sounds, colors and smells. But it thrilled me,” she recalls of her first trip to Shanghai.
Already in the magister phase, she focused on traditional secret societies in China. Later, she wrote her doctoral thesis on spiritual, and religious groups. ” The term stands for various ideas, some of which originate from Buddhism and Christianity,” says Shi-Kupfer, who is a devout Christian herself. Even then, she says, these groups were actually banned. “To deal with the issue today would certainly be much more difficult,” she says. After all, it is now highly risky to practice one’s religion in China as an unregistered group.
During her doctoral studies, Shi-Kupfer also began to work as a journalist. Starting in 2008, she reported from Beijing for various media outlets. “As a journalist in China, I had the chance to be curious and get to know the country very deeply.” But in 2011, when the Hattingen native witnessed some of her friends being arrested in the wake of the protests at the time and the political situation in the country increasingly deteriorated, she decided to leave China. “I became cynical back then and had to get out,” she says. Back in Germany, she headed the Politics, Society and Media research department at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) for seven years.
No more entry permit
Shi-Kupfer has not traveled to China since 2019. “My husband and I used to go to China traditionally over New Year’s Eve to visit his family and our friends.” When she and her husband – journalist Shi Ming – will be able to travel to the People’s Republic again is still uncertain. They are currently unable to obtain visas. “We applied for the visas through an agency, so we don’t know whose fault it was,” she says. By now, she misses the city of Beijing and, even more, her friends there.
In October 2020, Shi-Kupfer moved back to the University of Trier as Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies. At the Mercator Institute, she said, she did a lot of daily news and media work, and now she has more freedom to conduct research and teach. “I have always enjoyed teaching. This way I can pass something on.”
Her current research focuses on social media and media debates. Last year, for example, she published a paper analyzing discourse on artificial intelligence and ethics in China on two Chinese social media platforms.
” At present, I am researching how Chinese men and women outside China portray their identity on Twitter,” Shi-Kupfer describes one of her research projects. For example, she was interested in what issues matter to Chinese citizens living abroad. “Since I can’t go to China, unfortunately, I can at least talk to Chinese people abroad,” she says. Lisa Oder