I recently co-convened a small international academic workshop with a Chinese university. Since we wanted to involve quite a few China-based scholars and the topic concerned China, I thought it made perfect sense to hold the workshop in China.
A number of scholars from outside China were to attend, so my Chinese co-convenor and I were suitably daunted by the many interferences and hurdles we might face from the university. We toyed with the idea of simply booking a conference room in a Chinese city and having the workshop there, away from the university's scrutiny.
But then we began to worry that the hotel might pull the plug on us at the last minute due to some rules we hadn't anticipated – after all, the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was also planned for around the same time.
My co-convenor told me that her Dean, eager to internationalise the university's research activities, had pledged his support. Our workshop application set off on what seemed like endless rounds of approval. Eventually, we got the go-ahead. My co-convenor told me that at one stage the Party Secretary of her school had suggested that a big billboard promoting the workshop be posted on campus, despite my own desire to 'lie low'.
The workshop was held in English, and (apart from the first 10 minutes of the first day, when the research Dean came to welcome us and give her blessing) we were left completely alone to get on with our discussions. No Party secretary sat in with us, there was no other form of accountability to the university. The main themes of the workshop included social inequality, hetero-normativity, and the cultural politics of transgression in millennial China.
Such is the contradiction of experience when it comes to China. On the one hand, Xi's new era has unleashed further ideological indoctrination and scrutiny, and every Chinese academic I have talked to has a story about how this affects them. On the other hand, life goes on. International workshops continue to be held in Chinese universities. Chinese scholars still go around the world presenting their research findings in English, some of which is critical of China.
When a senior scholar from a top Chinese university came to Australia recently to speak on matters that might be considered sensitive, we asked whether he was worried about getting into trouble. 'I only publish critical stuff in English, and give this kind of talk outside China,' he answered. 'When I publish in Chinese, I write … in a technical, non-controversial kind of way'.
Increasingly, Chinese universities, like those in Australia, are catching the 'internationalising' bug. Chinese academics are regularly sent to Western universities on sabbaticals, and many senior academics and managers have degrees from the US, the UK and Australia.
Often enough, such scholars are in fact members of the Party. I know a few who are not only good at getting around potential ideological and political roadblocks – they hold senior university positions and are expected to exercise control.
When news about putting Party secretaries into senior management positions of China-based foreign universities emerged, Chinese academics were not too worried. A senior academic of Chinese origin who has worked in Europe and has since returned to China told me, 'I don't need the Party Secretary to tell me what not to do. I already know that. I exercise self-censorship. I never expected there to be total freedom and autonomy in the first place.' When she first started the job, she had actually invited the Party Secretary to come to the first meeting, to establish some common ground: 'They are sensible people, too, but they need to do their job, so there has to be some kind of understanding between the two sides that each needs to do its own work'.
Many foreign universities in China already have a Party Secretary on board. A Western academic now working on a Chinese campus of one such foreign university does not think that having a Party Secretary in management makes too much practical difference. In fact, he believes it makes his job easier: 'It actually helps us do our work because there's no one outside looking at us and criticising'.
Another Western academic now in a senior management position on the Chinese campus of a different foreign university suspects that this initiative is just another attempt to please President Xi, and that it is only 'the foreign press and foreigners who are getting their knickers in a knot about it'. He says that 'there is nothing new here, and until we hear something different, I wouldn't worry'.
The fact is that nowadays many scholarly endeavours can ill afford to ignore China if they are to be credible. Having a presence in the country can facilitate access to opportunities for learning about and doing new research on China.
If you want to operate in China, you do have to make certain compromises. The alternative is to pull out altogether. But what good would that do? Assuming that Western scholars value a plurality of voices and a cosmopolitan outlook, doesn't it make better sense for us to stay engaged with China and our Chinese counterparts?
Both Western and Chinese universities want to have their cake and eat it too. The former want access to the Chinese market while maintaining academic freedom. The latter want to be part of the global scholarly community while maintaining ideological control on behalf of the Party. Putting a Party Secretary in senior management seems to be the Chinese way of addressing these conflicted desires. But would foreign universities be able to find a different solution that works for both sides?
Back to the workshop I started with. Now that it's finished and we want to publish the resulting papers, our efforts to publish as a collective are being thwarted. The China-based scholars say that unless their papers appear in a Social Science Citation Index-listed journal, they don't want to be a part of it, as their universities wouldn't count them as valid publications. Meanwhile, authors from outside China have told me that they don't want their papers in an edited volume because their universities' research metrics don't count such publications. Both of these research-reporting regimes are set by a commercial Western conglomerate, whose benchmarks are not transparent to academics.
It seems Chinese and Western scholars are both subject to another kind of control.