Shared Module: Framing Scholarship on Contemporary China

This shared module covers a number of topics of fundamental importance for how we think and talk about China today. It begins with a number of readings on conceptual and methodological framing, calling for China to be understood in a global and comparative perspective and for increased awareness of our own ideological positioning. This is followed by a forum on fieldwork penned by early career researchers reflecting on the challenges and epiphanies they experienced in the field. The module concludes with readings delving into issues related to censorship and the vital importance of committing ourselves to open scholarship in the study of today’s China.

Framing Scholarship on Contemporary China

Blind Line (盲行), Deng Cheng Wen, Oil on Canvas

A severe disease has infected the public discourse surrounding Chinese politics: whataboutism. The virus of whataboutism produces at least two symptoms. On the one hand, it fosters apathy: if any form of criticism is just seen as hypocrisy, then what is the point of having endless discussions? On the other hand, it blinds by obscuring basic similarities, muddying the water and making it difficult to identify actual commonalities that extend beyond national borders and are inherent to the organisation of the global economy in our current stage of late capitalism. However, this is not the end of the story. Whataboutism also produces a powerful hyperactive immune response that manifests itself as a complete dismissal of any attempt to find similarities between dynamics in China and elsewhere, a form of argumentation that can be defined as ‘essentialism’. How should we deal with the virus of whataboutism and its essentialist hyperactive immune reaction?

For almost as long as political science has existed as a discipline, the study of Chinese politics has been afflicted with a chronic disease. Depending on one’s perspective, this malady’s manifestations have amounted to either neglected isolation or arrogant exceptionalism. To treat this illness, it is important to set aside any rigid orthodoxy and to encourage and celebrate diversity and bold experimentation.

What is ideology? This article argues that it is the inescapable air we breath as political and social beings. We are never above, beyond, or outside ideology. For that reason, we should not project as ideology that which takes place elsewhere, something that happens to other, ‘passive’ minds. Understanding ideology requires self-reflexivity, and attunement to historical and political contexts. 

Sam Berlin, Yifan Cai, Tyler Harlan, and Wenjing Jiang. 2019. ‘Forum: The Challenges of Doing Fieldwork in China.Made in China Journal 4, no. 3: 106–23.

Fieldwork is indispensable for researching China today, in particular due to a lack of accessible and reliable secondary data. The rapidly changing Chinese and global political landscapes prompt the continuous (re)shaping of social scientific research design in, on, and about China. In the field, researchers’ identities are (re)produced and contested along multiple axes of differentiation, including gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, the insider-outsider and Chinese-foreigner dichotomies. Moreover, China is a continent-sized country, presenting neither a singular nor homogeneous research site.  It is against this background that the four pieces in this forum seek to reflect on emerging challenges and opportunities involved in doing fieldwork in contemporary China. 

In several instances in recent years, international commercial academic publishers have been compliant with demands of censorship coming from the Chinese authorities. On the surface, this apathetic response to the erosion of the core value of academic freedom by one of the main global players in the sector is puzzling. However, it should be understood in the wider context of the academy’s acquiescence to commercial modes of publishing that have turned the dissemination of scientific results into a highly profitable and exploitative business. Ethical open access is the only way to prevent further incidents like this and also can be a powerful tool to advance the ends of civil society and social movements.

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