Crowd of people in China

Conducting China-related research in the context of COVID-19

Author Prof Haiqing Yu
Date 23 March 2022

The field of China Studies has experienced several significant challenges in recent years. Not only are researchers having to deal with travel restrictions and political tensions between the US and China; we must also work through the shifting administrative hurdles presented by our home institutions amid the distrust from folks in China and fellows in the West.

Here in Australia, the distrust of and bias against Chinese internet and social media platforms, for example, can be a huge hurdle for conducting digital ethnography and online interviews. This is because when risk management takes priority over ethics by the ethics committees, Chinese platforms such as WeChat are deemed insecure and insufficient to ensure participants’ privacy and views are protected. This is especially the case when topics are regarded as ‘too sensitive’, too political – such as mine on the social credit system, a topic that most Chinese people don’t care or know about but a topic that has been politicised and demonised in the Western knowledge production about China and Western imaginary of China. In such a biased paradigm, the discussion of Chinese internet and social media has to include censorship and self-censorship, as well as the Chinese government’s influence on the Chinese migrants and its interference in foreign countries. If you don’t discuss or acknowledge that, reviewers will make you do so through the peer review process. Even the identity of researchers can be called into question, for being “Chinese.”

This is what UK-based Chi Zhang and HK-based Tung-Yi Kho (2022) have called Sinophobia in China scholarship in their opinion piece that critiques the Sinophobic identity politics and discrimination against non-Western knowledge production in Western media, politics, and academia. This includes: the politicisation of science and direct discrimination against scientists of Chinese background, and indirect discrimination against Chinese scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

Such discrimination against non-Western knowledge production has manifested itself from grant application to peer review process. Here in Australia, in December 2021, Australia’s acting education minister vetoed six humanities research grants which had been recommended by the independent Australian Research Council for funding, on grounds of not demonstrating “value for money” and not contributing to the “national interest”. Two were focused on China: one on Memory Politics in Modern China, and the other on China stories under Xi Jinping. The veto set a bad precedence of political interference in academic freedom and integrity. This is despite the angry reaction and protest from the research community.

On the peer review process, Zhang and Kho (2022) writes, “the conflation of Chinese authors with the Chinese authorities seems to be made too quickly too often, despite the diversities within the imagined community that ‘looks’ Chinese on paper. Double-blind review does not prevent reviewers from speculating about the author’s national, ethnic, and/or cultural origins through questioning topic selection or the writing style of someone whose first language is not English, and as a consequence, from making inferences about their intellectual and political orientations.”

Apart from Sinophobia in China scholarship in the West, we also face the squeeze, distrust, and obstacles from the Chinese side. China has changed—it has become richer, stronger and more confident. Chinese people have changed—they are more cosmopolitan and patriotic at the same time. Doing fieldwork in China has changed too—the analogue but friendly and relatively open era of stranger sociality is replaced by the digital but closed system of stranger suspicion and exclusion.

Twenty years ago, one would be confronted with cultural and linguistic factors that might have an impact on data collection and interpretation via interviews and surveys, including understanding local cultures and languages/dialects and their cultural sensitivity to topics like domestic violence, homosexuality, and suicide. People were more open and relaxed to discuss most topics, including what is now deemed politically sensitive topics, such as political communication, investigative journalism, citizen activism, or civil society.

Ten years ago, one would be more concerned about political factors. The power of politics has penetrated into every aspect of life including music, art, daily speech, and online behaviour. The Chinese people started to guard themselves against international researchers including Chinese academics working for Western universities. It became difficult to talk to strangers on the street or in the village without a local conduit, guanxi or collaborator. One also needed to be aware of trending sensitive topics of the day when designing a research topic or question (to avoid them). Cultural and linguistic factors aside, interpreting data (qualitative or quantitative) could also be a problem, because what you get on the internet has been sifted via the various content moderation mechanisms and what you get from interviews or surveys may not reflect true answers when respondents involved in a study would provide morally or politically correct answers, especially when the topic is deemed ‘sensitive’. The more difficult it is to pass the ethics approval process in our home institutions, the more difficult it is to get valid results through the conventional means of research.

Now since the global pandemic, most of us have been in lockdowns, quarantine or isolation; our national borders were closed. The Chinese border is still closed to foreigners. Not only families are separated; we as China studies researchers have been separated from our research subjects and sites. We face all the problems previously mentioned. In the context of covid 19, we also face new challenges in trying to understand China and conduct empirical research about China from afar. Problems include: how to recruit participants of different backgrounds via digital platforms for interviews and surveys, sometimes via third-party companies; which platforms is one allowed to use by our home institutions versus what platforms the Chinese prefer; how to interpret the data that is generated within the constraints of platforms, content censorship and ethics requirements? And how valid is one’s research findings based on such data.

Those are the general background and the big picture of conducting China-related research in the difficult and challenging times both in and outside China. They highlight the unique situation that China-studies researchers face collectively as a community.

In a webinar held on 23 June 2022 as part of the “Platforming China Dialogues” Webinar Series, a quarterly webinar series featuring informal conversations and exchanges in relation to digital China research, Guobin Yang, Weiyu Zhang, and Chuncheng Liu shared their experience in getting out of the conundrum to continue to conduct meaningful research about China, from conducting desktop research and using textual analysis to using multi-model and multi-role-based communication and field site research. The consistent reflection on one’s positionality as a researcher, a Chinese, or a China-studies researcher adds more complexity to the constant negotiation of geopolitics, racism, and institutional constraints in our everyday and professional lives.

The panel suggests striking a middle-ground approach in navigating the turbulent waters of knowledge production about China, being persistent and creative in conducting mixed-method research, and letting real people’s stories and direct quotes tell for themselves. An open-ended conclusion can be both an academic positionality and a political statement on refusing to take sides.

The “Platforming China Dialogues” Webinar Series is part of Prof Yu’s project on the social implications of China’s social credit system funded by ARC Future Fellowship (FT200100100).


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