Crowd of people in China

Global China as Method

Author Prof Haiqing Yu
Date 2 September 2022

The following short piece was a follow-up summary of a webinar on “Global China as Method: In conversation with authors” held online on 30 August 2022. It is part of the “Platforming China Dialogues” Webinar Series, a quarterly webinar series featuring informal conversations and exchanges among leading scholars in digital China research.

The webinar features Dr Nicholas Loubere, co-author of Global China as Method, published by Cambridge University Press (2022). Nicholas is a Senior lecturer in the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University. He has expertise on microcredit and socioeconomic development in rural China. As a scholar in China studies and development studies, Nicholas has employed grounded, ethnographic, and participatory approaches in research on financial inclusion initiatives and digital financial penetration; Chinese migration to Ghana for informal, small-scale gold mining—particularly focusing on socioeconomic transformation in Ghana and China, processes and patterns of migration, and flows of resources.

The webinar is the third in the quarterly webinar series. In the previous webinars we discussed practical issues that we all face when conducting research about China in the context of COVID-19; and current issues and debates in digital China research. In the last webinar Jack Qiu, Hong Yu, and Graham Webster shared their experience and trajectories in conducting digital China research. All of them have pointed out the multidimensional, intersectionality approach to research about China embedded in empirical evidence. They all call for reading China in a historical, contextual, comparative, and grounded framework. Jack Qiu, for example, calls for a four-dimensional approach in digital China research: downward (away from the ‘high end’ to examine smaller plays and invisible issues like digital labour), forward (beyond existing platforms and systems to look for seeds of alternatives and chance for the future), backward (trans-historical perspective on contemporary issues), and outward (China in the world; ‘Chinese’ as a way of thinking and doing things).

Such a position and attitude was echoed and elaborated in the webinar on Global China as Method (open access). The book is short and very readable. It is a departure from the standard book-length in “traditional” academic publications—it is succinct in writing, light in academic jargon, balanced in perspectives, and at the same time sophisticated in analysis. In the book, Ivan and Nicholas examine five key issues that frequently arise in current discussions about China, in order to illuminate the ways in which the country and people form an integral part of the global capitalist system. They ask: Is China part of the world? The answer is not always straightforward. The five chapters—on labour rights, the social credit system, Xinjiang, the Belt and Road Initiative, and academic freedom—offer excellent examples on how to read China with an open mind and a sense of humility. In their view, China should not be viewed as being outside “the world” as a form of anomaly; it is not an alternative to but rather an integral part of a global system.

The book challenges some of the simplistic and stereotypical perceptions about China and the Chinese people. Following University of Chicago’s Ching Kwan Lee’s advice, “studying global China means reimagining China beyond China, connecting, contextualizing, and comparing ‘Chinese’ development with that in other parts of the world,” Ivan and Nicholas prompt us to take both a horizontal (comparative and relational) and vertical (historical and contextual) approach to China as an object of critical enquiry. The book asks us to look at the bigger picture and ask bigger questions beyond the China threat or “silent invasion” rhetoric. It asks us to examine what China is, what it is doing, how and why it does certain things, instead of just doing finger pointing from a presumably high moral ground and lamenting how bad the government of China or CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is. It proposes that “A solid understanding of China’s politics, society, and foreign policy in historical perspective should be a prerequisite for any analysis of global China’s contemporary emergence” (p. 41).

Global China as Method entails a reimaging of China from a more contextualised, global, historical, and relational perspective. China is understood as a part of the world and global capitalist systems; its integration into the global systems is characterised by parallels, linkages, continuities, and evolutions, as well as ruptures and flaws, when compared with “the world”. Such a view can be confronting to people who are convinced of their own approach and agenda in writing about China, whether it is the essentialist or whataboutism perspective. The authors strive to seek balance between the essentialism and whataboutism frames in writing about China and China in the world. Such an effort is not always appreciated by some, who accuse the authors of being China apologists, or “wolf warriors in sheep’s clothing” (a term given by hawks in Western media and politics to Chinese diplomats).

The book presents some very uncomfortable facts to people who are versed in the binary approach to discuss China. For example: in the chapter on the social credit system, the authors write, “The ability to leverage digital technologies to collect huge amounts of different types of data, along with the algorithmic automation of data analysis, represents the next logical step in the evolution of capitalist credit rating systems and the wider goal of expanding economic integration. Chinese social credit certainly represents an important example of this development, alongside others around the world” (p. 28). The process of state power over the social body, often channelled through private and public infrastructure and through the mechanisms of nudging, ranking, and ethno-racial profiling (as in Xinjiang), is not unique to China. The Xinjiang camps represent “a contemporary colonial system of exploitation and dispossession at a frontier of global capitalism” (p. 36). The authors urge us to locate China in the global capitalist system and add nuance in understanding the pre-existing conditions and the “predistribution stage” (p. 47) of Chinese practices at home and abroad.

There is an underlying critique of the double standard of the West on Chinese practices in conducting international businesses, labour and industrial relations, and social management, and on Chinese approaches to technologies and technological systems like the social credit system. The question of framing and “cognitive biases” in Western media reports on China and China’s global engagements is implied many times in the chapters. For instance, the so-called Chinese “debt trap diplomacy” in the case of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka in the BRI chapter is not what we are told by the media (pp. 42-43); it is an apt example of how taking Chinese (mis)practices out of context can be severely misleading. Similarly, the issues about labour rights and industrial relations are not necessarily simply a matter of China “racing to the bottom” in its exploitation of workforce (Chinese or non-Chinese), but also about “China adapting to global capitalism, giving in to international pressures, and conforming to broader trends” (p. 18).

The book ends with a chapter on academic freedom; it offers an unrelenting critique and pained quite a troubling picture on the commercialisation and bureaucratisation of academia. Academic freedom is a qualified and contextual concept. Self-censorship is the game we all play, and it cannot be blamed on China alone. We are all restricted by our institutional arrangements, funding body requirements, and the political-media environment of where we work and live. Unlike the media and think tanks, academics usually back their arguments with evidence and their work goes through a vigorous peer review process before being rejected, or revised and published. From seeking and fighting for research funding to vying for high-impact publications, academics are chained to the system of unfreedom. This is especially so when academics and students alike find themselves working for the University Incorporated, where the relationship between universities and students are akin to that of service providers and clients, where professors are cogs in the gigantic commercial machinery and “impact” is measured by numbers in the excel charts of administration and management teams, and where the imperative to secure external funding amid cut in public funding renders academics vulnerable to exploitation by “influence” actors. Scientists of Chinese background are regarded as easy targets in the influence operations. The McCarthyism and witch hunting in academia has a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom, particularly among people of colour. And this is more worrying than the so-called foreign interference.

In sum: throughout the book, the authors have relentlessly criticised the self-other dichotomy in the Western discourses and representations of China. They have critiqued the essentialised version of China as an external, corrupting force, the evil other, the worse shadow of “us” the West, of China as a threat and the bullying Other. We must remind ourselves that the othered representation of China is also common in the Chinese official and non-official discourses. It is in the Chinese self-representation as exceptional to or different from the rest of the world. It is also in China’s representation of the West as the threatening other—either cultural other or statist other. We have seen the face changing scenario in the Sichuan opera, when China evolves from the victimised self (China as the victim) to the victimising other (China as the bully). The self-other binary approach has been used to justify its repression at home and aggression abroad. In that sense, China is indeed an integral part of a global system and trend in “unsmart” power, despite being cloaked in smart terms and technologies.

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).