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China Studies Fatigue or Why We Need to Prepare Young China Scholars to Face Ethical Questions

China Studies Through the Lens of Crisis, Part III

By Tatjana Romig

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there was another feeling that was gaining prominence for me. Throughout the years, I have talked about it with friends and colleagues at various levels of their “China studies career”. Master and PhD students, post-docs, think-tanker, university researchers, experts working on China or in China. I sometimes call it “China studies fatigue”. A feeling or a mental state that just leaves you extremely tired when you are confronted with the limitations and challenges of your research. Something that can be quite toxic and restricting when you’re a China studies student approaching graduation or when you make your living researching Greater China.

But what am I complaining about? Aren’t we all at some point burned out when it comes to our career? Isn’t it normal that our “passion” for our area of expertise shines brighter on some days than on others? And couldn’t one argue that those feeling tired of their research subjects might have just chosen the wrong subject or topic?

I partly agree with that line of argument; however, I do believe that the fatigue or exhaustion related to the research subject is something that is especially challenging for China researchers. I’ll explain why:

The majority of young scholars studying China truly start out with a passion for the country as their intrinsic motivation. Some visited or lived in China and fell in love with its beautiful nature and warm people. Some love Chinese food culture, the Chinese language’s fascinating script or China’s rich cultural history. Others are impressed with the speed of technological development and the drive and energy you can feel in so many Chinese cities. And some want to understand the role China will and is playing in our international order.

As their studies continue, the road turns bumpy. For sure, many students drop out because of the challenge of learning the Chinese language, but I would argue that those truly passionate are finding a way through. However, when young China scholars are about to graduate or in the early stages of their career, it becomes more challenging. For the first time, young scholars are confronted with restrictions when living in China, the challenges when it comes to fieldwork or simply access to data in general. The problem which topics one can actually do research on without limiting the quality of the work due to a lack of access to sources or, even worse, the risk of endangering interview partners or colleagues. Besides, one is increasingly confronted with ethical problems: how to do research on an authoritarian regime? When is one building bridges and at what point is one strengthening systems one disagrees with? Does avoiding research on sensitive subjects mean that one is complicit with the authoritarian regime and self-censoring one’s research? And finally, how can one separate one’s research from one’s own political views and is that even the right thing to do when it comes to fundamental values? This is when China studies fatigue surfaces.

The MERICS Report “China kennen, China können” (Stepan et al. 2018) warned that the number of students enrolling in China Studies has been dropping since 2014. Additionally, the number of students learning Chinese in high school stagnates at around 5000 students in Germany, compared to more than 38 000 in France (Stepan et al. 2018). I would argue that this trend is partly because of early China studies fatigue. As explored in the previous essay, media commentary on China has been increasingly polarized for years. The China image of current high school students might not be primarily shaped by China’s economic boom and its role as an emerging stakeholder in the international system, but by the authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping, the trade war, the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and lately the COVID-19 outbreak. Will students who learn about China in this context find the motivation to embark on the challenging subject of China studies? Or will they be put off by this negative image?

How should China Studies respond to this challenging situation? As a first step, I do believe China scholars must talk more openly about this topic. About the challenges when doing research on and in China. About the inevitable clash of values. About the difficulties of positioning oneself, especially as junior researchers. About the fatigue that sometimes hits and psychological strategies to overcome it.

Secondly, we need to better prepare young China scholars to navigate both the practicalities and the ethical questions of their research on contemporary China. To do so university curricula should give more room to these developments. Especially for graduate students, it would be helpful to provide courses on fieldwork in China, how to gather data on sensitive topics and how to work with colleagues and sources on the ground while navigating a sensitive environment. Also, research ethics should be integrated into the curriculum. Given the sensitive nature of doing research on certain topics related to China, such a course should critically address questions of complicity, self-censorship, potential clashes of the understanding of academic freedom with counterparts in China, and how to navigate the ambiguity and lack of complete information that is inevitable when studying contemporary China. This could also be an excellent point to link China studies to other area studies that might face similar problems with research in sensitive and restricted environments. While the challenges laid out in this article surface when researching China, they are by no means exclusive to China scholars. Better exchanges with other disciplines would not only avoid the perception of China as a black swan but also allow for broader discussions on research ethics when doing research on an authoritarian regime beyond the China studies bubble.

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