Doing Fieldwork in China During and Beyond the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Study
In their influential book on doing fieldwork in China, Heimer and Thøgersen (2006: 1) describe the experience as ‘eye-opening but sometimes also deeply frustrating’. Indeed, while fieldwork provides an essential foundation for understanding Chinese politics and society, it also poses significant challenges that demand careful consideration. These challenges have been widely recognised and include, most notably, the heavy reliance on partner institutions and personal relationships (关系) for access to research objects, as well as managing the ever-changing political risks (or red lines) in an authoritarian context (Glasius et al. 2018; Gold et al. 2002; Heimer and Thøgersen 2006). Understandably, these challenges vary considerably across disciplines and research topics and are further shaped by researchers’ different positionalities (Berlin 2019; Cui 2014; Zhao 2017).
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, China specialists were already grappling with the growing sensitivity of the Chinese political environment (Harlan 2019), which not only presented challenges in acquiring data but also entangled researchers in a multitude of ethical issues professionally, personally, and politically, as summarised by Alpermann (2022). In this already challenging context, the pandemic introduced new layers of difficulty. In addition to the health risks, China’s extended zero-Covid policy, which remained in place until December 2022, significantly limited researchers’ access to field sites and institutions. Moreover, the continued tightening of ideological control, coupled with the increasingly strained relationships between China and many Western countries since the onset of the pandemic, has further complicated the situation.
Against this backdrop, we—a team of early-career China scholars based in Australia—sought to explore how the pandemic has affected the fieldwork and research of internationally based China specialists. We aimed to explore the challenges of conducting fieldwork and the tactics used to manage them. We were also keen to understand how the domestic academic environment in China has evolved over the past three years for those conducting social science research, fieldwork, and engaging in international collaborations. In this essay, we summarise and reflect on our findings and hope to contribute to a smoother transition for scholars looking to resume their fieldwork research in China as the country reopens its borders.
This project grew out of a workshop called ‘Fieldwork in a Time of Covid’, organised by Emeritus Professor Michael Webber at the University of Melbourne on 22 July 2021. The workshop brought together scholars from the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, and mainland China who shared a common interest in exploring strategies for research in or on China during and after the pandemic. Using the key themes identified during the workshop as a starting point, we launched a research project funded by the University of Melbourne’s China Engagement Seed Grant. Through this project, we aimed to learn from China specialists’ firsthand experiences, knowledge, and insights.
We used semi-structured interviews as the primary data collection method, supplemented by participants’ written responses to our survey questions. Between October 2022 and February 2023, we interviewed 21 China specialists—10 internationally (six in Australia and four in other countries) and 11 based in China. To ensure diversity in our sample, we selected participants from our research team’s professional network, with a focus on research-led universities in Australia and China. We balanced gender, ethnicity, and career stage, with a particular emphasis on including early-career researchers (see Table 1 for details). We also aimed to include interviewees from a range of social science disciplines that utilise fieldwork as a core method of inquiry in their China research, including geography, sociology, political science, public policy and administration, and communications (Heimer and Thøgersen 2006; Thurston and Pasternak 2019).
Table 1. Demographic characteristics of the interview/survey sample
To gain a better understanding of the fieldwork experiences of PhD researchers, we organised a workshop and an essay competition in October 2021 and late 2022, respectively. During the workshop, four doctoral students shared their experiences of conducting fieldwork during the pandemic. The theme of the essay competition was ‘Outstanding China Fieldwork Insights’ and we received submissions from eight PhD students, who wrote about their experiences conducting fieldwork in contemporary China (for the winning essays, see Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies 2022).
Results from Internationally Based China Specialists
1. Concerns and Difficulties
Except for the postgraduate researchers, at the time of our survey, none of the participants had travelled to China since 2020. This was primarily due to the pandemic and China’s zero-Covid policy, which either restricted physical access or made the trip too costly and risky to undertake. The limited flight options, health risks, long and uncertain quarantine times, high costs and risks of travel, reliance on health codes in China, and caring responsibilities were cited as concerns for doing fieldwork while China maintained its zero-Covid policy.
The urgency to conduct fieldwork varied according to career stage, with most graduate researchers needing to complete it in a timely manner. One of the PhD students we interviewed and all participants in the two events we organised aimed at PhD students had persisted with fieldwork despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. The process was fraught with difficulties and anxiety, and several uncertainties brought about by Covid-19 were mentioned repeatedly: doubts about the feasibility of and opportunity to stick to original research methods, increasingly stringent ethical scrutiny from affiliated institutions due to the higher risks in the field, frequent cancellations of flights, and changes to travel and accommodation arrangements both in China and elsewhere.
Drawing on their extended observations, our interviewees expressed strong concerns about the political situation in China and, to a lesser extent, the state of relations between it and major Western countries. Some of the more experienced academics nostalgically recalled the ‘good old days’ when physical distance was the primary barrier. Some respondents also pointed out how the line between sensitive and non-sensitive research topics has become increasingly blurred over time, resulting in the formal suspension of collaborations due to political and safety concerns.
These concerns appear to be particularly prominent among non-Chinese respondents. As one of our non-Chinese interviewees stated:
More barriers started to appear around 2016 when being a foreigner really became a problem for interviewing local officials, at the county level or above, or doing research on particular topics—namely, the poverty alleviation campaign … I am also deeply concerned about the political situation in China, the state of Australia–China relations, recent arbitrary detentions and harassment of journalists and academics. I don’t think I would feel safe in China right now as an Australian.
The increasingly negative view of China on the international stage has further complicated the situation. As noted by another non-Chinese interviewee:
In Germany, in a major poll from November 2022, China was seen as even less trustworthy than Russia—despite the latter being omnipresent in the media as an aggressor in Ukraine. This has led to an increasingly caustic debate among German China scholars on whether or not to continue research in China if that requires working with the Party in some way or another.
In addition to Covid-19 and associated political challenges, the university system seems to have added another layer of constraints. Researchers in precarious positions beyond the PhD stage faced problems due to their employment status and performance expectations. As one elaborated:
I’ve been juggling multiple jobs to meet deadlines and maintain various contracts. Given these demands, conducting fieldwork is simply not a priority for me unless it is specifically required by an employer. If the goal is to build my research profile, fieldwork is both time-consuming and [the] outcomes uncertain, so I’d rather postpone it.
Those in a tenured position also expressed frustration. As a mid-career tenured academic put it:
Unlike the North American system, where academics are typically paid for nine months and are then free to arrange their time for the remaining three, the Australian academic system expects us to balance teaching, engagement, and research. In the context of research, productivity is expected. However, the resource-intensive nature of fieldwork, requiring both time and money, can create tension. To be candid, I’ve been unable to conduct extensive fieldwork since completing my PhD. Before Covid-19, I only did it during short trips and often during my own vacation time while visiting family and friends in China.
Moving up the career ladder, some late-career academics are challenged by their overwhelming leadership and service responsibilities.
2. Coping Strategies
Depending on the discipline, research topic, available funding, and individual networks and skillsets, researchers have adopted one or more of the following strategies for fieldwork research:
- Continue fieldwork by collaborating with partners or agencies in China, which typically involves (re)framing research questions and/or adjusting research design to align with China’s domestic policies and political narratives.
- Temporarily cease data collection while utilising data collected in previous fieldwork in China.
- Shift the research focus from China’s domestic to global processes.
- Decrease the overall reliance on fieldwork by modifying research topics or adopting alternative research methods, such as replacing interview analysis with policy and digital data-based analysis.
The scholars who demonstrated the greatest resilience in terms of continuing fieldwork despite Covid-related disruptions are those who managed to leverage their previous collaboration with China-based partners. In these cases, the interviewees hired local assistants—through either their China-based partners or PhD students conducting fieldwork in China—to collect data on their behalf. Access to informants was primarily supported by China-based collaborators and, in some cases, the assistants’ own networks. Access to informants has predominantly relied on the support of China-based collaborators and, in some cases, the assistants’ personal networks. Research carried out within these teams often necessitates adjustments in terms of questions or design. For instance, some interviewees have reported changing their research location due to Covid-19 restrictions or the resources available through their research partners. During interviews, they have omitted certain questions when faced with sensitivity issues raised by their sources. They have also explored alternative public sources of data whenever possible.
However, it is important to acknowledge that not all researchers have had the same level of success. The heightened political sensitivity of certain topics has presented significant challenges for some. Several interviewees shared instances of rejection by longstanding collaborators due to the perceived sensitivity of their subject. Research projects that are highly prioritised by the central government—such as China’s Covid-19 restrictions, poverty alleviation, and the Three Gorges Dam—often trigger heightened vigilance at the local level. In such cases, researchers have had limited flexibility in shifting their research questions and design, as conducting research on these topics was generally considered too risky.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions to these challenges. For example, two of our interviewees attempted to study poverty alleviation during the Covid-19 pandemic—a politically sensitive topic. While one faced outright rejection from local officials despite having some connections, the other was able to conduct interviews by joining a Chinese research team that had stronger local connections and focused on a closely related but more positively viewed topic: rural revitalisation. By aligning her research with the Chinese team’s project and reframing her approach, she was able to continue her research.
Indeed, many of our interviewees have noted that joining a Chinese scholar’s research project and conducting fieldwork together are potentially the most effective approach in the current environment. They attach high importance to professional networks—whether with local authorities, Chinese partner universities, or individual academics—for the successful completion of fieldwork in China.
While the collaboration-based approach is appealing and effective, it is not without its limitations. As discussed earlier, the growing sensitivity of certain research topics has led to the cessation of some collaborations to avoid risks to the researchers, their partners, and sources. Even when local agencies were involved during the pandemic, there were many Covid-related limitations, such as when and how far people could travel. In addition to concerns about the political and physical risks, an expanded ethical procedure may be required, such as training third-party individuals on ethical matters and ensuring the confidentiality of interview material (Glasius et al. 2018; Naufel and Beike 2013). Moreover, relying on China-based partners for fieldwork can raise concerns about power dynamics, leading to potential ethical issues. As elaborated by one of our interviewees: ‘Research by our Chinese colleagues is an option but creates a strange scenario in which they may become service providers or contractors for Western scholars. In other words, it may create imbalances of power.’
For others, relying on fieldwork conducted by others has never been desirable; the value of fieldwork lies beyond simple data collection. They felt that without travelling to the field sites, personally participating, and observing the environment, researchers could miss important insights and contextual elements essential for stimulating ideas and revealing research questions.
Results from China-Based Specialists
1. Changing Environment
The difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have also frustrated researchers based in China. The high level of uncertainty about which areas will become ‘high risk’ and therefore require prolonged quarantine made it difficult to determine when and where to conduct fieldwork. As highlighted by several of our interviewees based in China, many of their research projects are commissioned by the Chinese Government. In these instances, the government demonstrates a vested interest in investigating issues and provides substantial support, including data provision, interview coordination, and assistance with accommodation and transportation. However, many of these projects were suspended because of local Covid restrictions or the heightened focus of government officials on pandemic control efforts.
This was further complicated by individual localities and institutions implementing additional requirements to minimise risk in response to the political priority of maintaining the zero-Covid policy (that is, local governments taking excessive policy steps, 层层加码). According to one interviewee:
[W]hen my city’s policy was to quarantine for three days [after returning from another place], my university required an additional 10 days’ quarantine before we were allowed to enter campus, which further drove up the time cost of any trip … And we had to report every trip in our department’s WeChat group [which was not necessary before Covid], but I wasn’t willing to disclose my research plan to every colleague.
Another interviewee explained that their research project involving middle-school students was suspended for three years due to the strict policies around school visits during the pandemic. They were refused access to schools, which prevented them from engaging with the students necessary for their project.
Political sensitivity and risks were considered the top concerns alongside the uncertainty and risks brought about by Covid-19. While criticism of China’s political system has traditionally been considered a red line, our interviewees noted that research on more peripheral political topics—such as governance, rural policies, and public opinion—has also come under greater scrutiny. Given the international criticism of China’s zero-Covid policy and its politicisation, researching pandemic-related topics could also be considered sensitive and risky. Importantly, guidance on which research topics are too sensitive to implement is never clear. As one interviewee shared:
China is currently a ‘risky society’. By risky, I mean the risks around both Covid and research topics … The key is that no-one knows where and when the danger will come from, just like buying a lottery ticket, so everyone needs to be very vigilant in managing their own risks.
In this challenging context, censorship and self-censorship have, unsurprisingly, become more widespread and rigorous. However, given the Covid-19 restrictions and blurred boundaries, discrepancies in censorship practices remain significant. At the institutional level, censorship and self-censorship seem to be stricter in more remote localities and universities, but individual perspectives vary. Some interviewees suggested avoiding fieldwork altogether, noting that ‘in the ideological sphere, China is essentially “at war”, so fieldwork is not welcome and should be avoided’. Others remained optimistic and believed fieldwork was not as difficult as imagined and could resume once the pandemic was brought under control.
Attitudes towards international collaborations among institutions and academics were also characterised by ambiguity and conflicting policies. While some institutions cautioned their faculty to be wary of international collaboration during the pandemic, others continued to promote collaboration with international universities, particularly those that are highly ranked. The motivation for this often stemmed from the aspiration to enhance the Chinese university’s ranking, as international collaboration continues to be valued in ranking systems. Some institutions offered incentives such as project-based funding for international collaboration to encourage partnerships. However, such collaboration can be impeded by review processes involving endless paperwork and complex intra-institutional politics that can lead to censorship. In some cases, career disincentives also exist. According to one interviewee:
The policies around collaborations are conflicting at my university. In my contract, research collaborations are encouraged. But if I collaborate with a scholar from a different university but am not the first author [on a collaborative publication], the publication wouldn’t be counted in my annual performance review.
Given these challenges, several participants suggested it was better to avoid formal partnerships and rely on individual relationships for collaboration.
One topic that emerged from our interviews was the changing attitude towards China studies. In recent years, there has been a trend towards developing China’s own knowledge (主体性知识) on China, which involves rejecting Western social science’s views on China and encouraging social science researchers to publish more in Chinese. This trend has been accompanied by incentive structure adjustments at some institutions. As explained by one interviewee:
Three years ago, my university still highly valued English SSCI [Social Sciences Citation Index] journals, but that’s no longer the case. Things haven’t changed much in natural sciences—Nature and Science are still the best. But in social sciences, the change is apparent. There are no longer additional rewards for publishing SSCI papers.
For individual scholars, this trend could suggest that collaborating with international scholars has become less desirable.
2. Suggestions for Resuming Fieldwork in China
When asked for suggestions on how internationally based China specialists can resume fieldwork in China, China-based respondents agreed that the best-case scenario would be to form a joint investigation team to pursue topics of mutual interest. If this is not feasible, they advised researchers to leverage their personal and professional connections (that is, their ‘social capital’) to gain access to fieldwork opportunities. If possible, it would be best to avoid formal processes that could trigger the complex institutional review procedures that can lead to censorship. Other strategies, such as building trust before conducting fieldwork and recruiting local assistants, have been extensively reviewed elsewhere (Glasius et al. 2018; Heimer and Thøgersen 2006; Thurston and Pasternak 2019) and will not be discussed in detail here.
Overall, our research participants shared a view that conducting fieldwork in China has become increasingly difficult over the past decade. These observations align with previous research that has painted a rather bleak picture of researching in China (Harlan 2019). Covid-19 has not only introduced new, pandemic-specific risks and restrictions, but also exacerbated pre-existing challenges—notably, by further narrowing the political space for social research within China (Krause et al. 2021; Woodworth et al. 2022). Additionally, negative views of China on the international stage have led to more cautious and suspicious attitudes towards conducting research in and about the country.
A crucial theme that emerged from our research was a shared sense of inadequate institutional support. Unfortunately, some universities have created obstacles rather than providing much-needed assistance to their students and staff. Many PhD students have had to persist through the research process with little guidance or support from their institutions and, in some cases, they have been burdened by rigid ethical requirements. Researchers beyond the PhD stage face challenges such as excessive demands for research productivity and other responsibilities—all within the context of the neoliberal logic that governs universities today (Franceschini and Loubere 2022). These challenges ultimately limit their opportunities and ability to conduct fieldwork.
Despite the challenges brought about by Covid-19, we were impressed by the extraordinary resilience of our participants, who adapted to the significant obstacles posed by the pandemic to continue their research. As all participants emphasised, connections and research collaborations with China-based partners proved to be the most effective and resilient strategies in this extremely challenging context. However, the space for international collaborations in China is narrowing, as China-based colleagues point to a shifting emphasis on developing China’s own knowledge and a stronger tendency towards risk-avoidance due to the uncertainties of conducting social research involving international partners.
Looking ahead, with China lifting its travel restrictions in December 2022, travelling to China for fieldwork is now feasible again. However, the factors discussed in this essay, including the growing sensitivity of research topics and ambiguous attitudes towards international collaboration, are expected to have long-term effects. These factors highlight the need for strategic and thoughtful approaches when conducting fieldwork in China and (re)establishing international collaborations with Chinese partners. Ultimately, this will be a challenging yet exciting rebuilding process.
This research project has been funded by the University of Melbourne’s China Engagement Seed Grant 2022. We would like to express our appreciation to all the interviewees who contributed their insightful perspectives. We also extend our sincere gratitude to Professor Mark Wang for his valuable guidance and suggestions throughout the project.
Featured Image: Notebook, @gaaalen (Flickr.com).