Resistance and the Ethical China Watcher

Watching China Watching (XXVII)


In The Battle Behind the Front (China Heritage, 25 September 2017), we noted:

Through canny political alliances, tireless ingratiation with business groups and social elites, as well as by means of its cloying cooptation of cultural figures and student activists, the cadres working the United Frontier remain constantly vigilant, and forever combat-ready. The mission of the United Front is to disarm the enemy, confound the naïve and secure long-term support for the Party’s policies and strategic aims. After all, 統戰 United Front is short for 統一戰線 ‘United Battle Front’.

In the following China Digital Times interview — the latest addition to the Watching China Watching project of China Heritage — analysts at the Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies (MERICS) discuss some of the ethical dilemmas faced by international students and scholars when dealing with the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping. This is a topic central to Cutting a Deal with China, the statement published at the time of the launching of China Heritage in December 2016. It was also a concern that underpinned The China Story Project established in 2012.

Previously, we have suggested that for any effective response to the long-term and increasingly targeted ‘pointed power’ of the Chinese party-state, a United Front of Concern may well be one avenue to prevent the kinds of wasteful rancour that inevitable becloud discussions when professional reputations, sources of funding and opportunity are threatened. (See, for example, Clamorous Response to a Silent Invasion, The Lowy Interpreter, 27 April 2018.)


The interview below opens by touching on a discussion among scholars of China in Australia regarding the nature and extent of the influence of the People’s Republic in that country. Over recent months, an array of academics and media opinionators have spoken up in response to proposed government legislation regarding foreign interference on Australia’s political and public life. Like many mass-media public controversies, the resulting contestation has generated a crude narrative landscape, one in which the possibility for nuanced argument and discussion has been reduced by rhetorical posturing. As Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) observed about his China confrères in Paris, they were but ‘a sad, drab nest of vipers’. The delicious irony revealed by the bombast is that some scholars noted for their work on and sympathy for China’s nascent (or now still-born) civil society appear to be less appreciative, and protective, of the mature civil society in which they actually live.

As a signatory of one of the petitions discussed below, and in light of the work of China Heritage, although I am cognisant of the ‘vested interests’ of China scholars, I do take issue with simplistic characterisations of ‘Sinologists’. Furthermore, the thought that, for example, economists of China, or social scientists mired in their hard-won field work sites, engaged with their carefully selected China interviewees, and who cannily navigate elaborate ethics protocols to hew out careers using PRC data might evince greater objectivity or disinterestedness in dealing with the party-state than fustian Sinologues is risible.

In proposing a Code of Conduct, professional concord and solidarity in the following, one might venture that the MERICS analysts perhaps reflect in part the laudable collectivism that, until recently, has underpinned the European Union. Over time, it will be interesting to observe how students and scholars of China in other socio-political environments respond to the blandishments of the People’s Republic. Taking the ‘Five Eyes Anglo-sphere’ as an example: will those in North America assume ‘industry specific’ stances that reflect their local politics and institutional requirements; will those in Australia-New Zealand — themselves transformed over the past three decades by the individualistic ethos inculcated by the competitive neo-liberal university — splinter and continue the wrangling already evident; and will academics in the United Kingdom fracture along lines ordained by the ‘in’ and ‘out’ sentiments of Brexit? And so on and so forth. (This sounds perilously close to being a fundable, ‘shovel-ready’ research project…)


We are grateful to Sophie Beach of China Digital Times for permission to reprint this interview, which appeared under the title MERICS Interview: How to Resist China’s Influence on 14 June 2018.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
22 June 2018


As the editors of China Digital Times say in the introductory note to How to Resist China’s Influence:

Last week, we published Part One of an interview with Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (), and Mareike Ohlberg, a MERICS Research Associate, about the findings of a report they co-published with  the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi),  titled, “Authoritarian advance: Responding to China’s growing political influence in Europe.” In the first part of the interview, Ohlberg and Shi-Kupfer discussed the various ways the Chinese government is attempting to influence European politics and societies, and how this influence is targeted and responded to in different regions. In the second part, they discuss steps that individuals and institutions can take to counter such influence efforts.

How to Resist China’s Influence

MERICS Interview


China Digital Times: A divide between groups of China scholars in Australia was recently made public with the issuance of two separate open letters for and against proposed national security legislation that would limit foreign countries’ interference in Australian politics. Have you seen evidence of a similar split in the China-watching community in Europe about how to respond to perceived influence?

Mareike Ohlberg: There definitely is.

CDT: How is it manifested?

Kristin Shi-Kupfer: I would say that some of the Sinologists tend to be more accommodating of official China compared to social scientists or political scientists.

MO: There are exceptions, though.

KSK: Yes, but some of the most direct criticisms I received [on our study] were from Sinologists. For them it’s their love of and their fascination with China, but it’s also that their careers are based on access to and cooperation with China. They may face a shortage of financial resources from domestic institutions, and therefore take up Chinese offers for financing of research, funding for conferences. From their point of view, it’s threatening to their career if you force them to be overly cautious of any Chinese funding.

MO: I do see a more varied picture, I guess it depends on personal experience as well. What I see more is perhaps Sinologists not being happy with how China is already portrayed and then feeling that reports such as ours slam into that, again, and reinforce that image of China that they already feel is stereotypical. I’ve seen a lot of that. They feel that such narratives feed into pre-existing media narratives that they disagree with.

KSK: Yes, this is not contradictory. They also often have a huge personal involvement with China, emotional attachment to the country and society, so it’s understandable that they have a lot of resentment toward what they would call not constructive, contributing to stereotypes, even an anti-China sentiment within Europe.

CDT: How would you advise academics who are working on China and are concerned by this influence but who may also be concerned about access to China, about how to resist this influence while also maintaining their careers and research?

KSK: Taking Germany as an example, there is the head of the German Association for China Studies, taking steps to draft a code of conduct, to seek some common ground with colleagues and researchers working on China to emphasize transparency, emphasize what are the red lines. There is nothing wrong in principle with taking financing from China as long as you really try to make sure what the strings attached [might be] and try to have an exit option. Don’t do mid- or very long-term institutional partnerships; really make sure you have an influence on agendas, when it comes to conferences. So, a code of conduct, transparency, accountability to each other as China scholars, or name a committee or something like that. I think there is some thought being put into that effort now and I think it could be a very valuable tool.

MO: I think the most solid advice is organize, stick with each other as much as possible. Don’t allow any divide-and-conquer strategies.

KSK: Ask questions, do research, who is your Chinese partner, what might be the conflicts they are part of, what might their interests be, what strings [might be] attached? And don’t be overly naïve and don’t be overly hostile. Be more cautious and ask more questions as you enter especially a mid- or long-term institutional partnership with Chinese institutions.

MO: There is strength in numbers, stick up for your colleagues that have been blocked from entering China and, if you have colleagues at your institution that have been blocked, how do those add up? You have a Chinese presence there, but then some of your professors can’t go anymore, how does that add up? So in that case, push harder, stand up for your colleagues.

CDT: And I assume a lot of this would apply to other fields, like media, or policy makers or NGOs, think tanks.

MO: Yes, and solidarity is hard. It’s hard to achieve.

KSK: But transparency and accountability are the first things you can always strive for.

MO: Set standards for your “industry” or your sector, obviously more on a voluntary basis, but set those standards and try to get as many to sign on to those as possible.

KSK: And also communicate that more actively and self-consciously to the Chinese partners. Say, we are based in Europe, it’s not us taking a higher moral stance looking down on you, but you have to understand these are our values, our norms, our institutions we are working in. So if you want to cooperate with us, these are the terms on which we have to do it. Be more self-confident and don’t always restrict yourselves by saying you shouldn’t display moral superiority. It’s not about moral superiority, but it’s about what kinds of values and norms you believe in and want to stand for. Be more self-confident and more active on that.

CDT: Have you seen examples of people successfully doing this?

MO: Again, solidarity is a hard thing.

KSK: Individual politicians within Europe, maybe.

MO: I think it still needs to form. As people become more aware of it — I’ve talked to more people about it. I hear “solidarity will never work,” especially in the media sector, I get a lot of responses like that; they are competitors and won’t stick up for each other, and that is true for all fields in some sense. But I think that is what needs to happen.

CDT: I imagine when this question is put to some people and they are questioning, should I accept this money or should I attend this conference, it’s hard for them to imagine saying no and being able to carry on with their work as they were. So if there were some examples of people who have done that, it might be helpful.

KSK: Yes, this is a very good point. We need more collaboration and transparency concerning people who resisted financial temptations and stood up against pressure from Chinese institutions. It would be very helpful to hear and to learn from each other’s ways of dealing with those kind of issues, what strategy, what tactics to employ.

CDT: Shifting gears a little, you have mentioned that with that the U.K. has been more proactive in building up their own relationship with China. But what else would you say means for Sino-EU relations more generally?

MO: Speaking of idealism, something that needs to happen at the EU level is to stick together more. Brexit causes further fragmentation, and that is running counter to what should happen for Europe to be able to stand up to China more. More fragmentation, more different interest groups, a weakened EU, [it becomes] less credible in that way. Public confidence is lowered and that is all obviously more problematic in terms of entry points, more opportunities for dividing and conquering in a way.

CDT: Is there any other issue that we didn’t discuss or anything that you would like to add?

KSK: Mareike, you pointed this out early on when we started to do our study on political influencing and I am so happy you stick to it. Thinking about the Chinese in Europe and how to look at them. Again, [we need to] differentiate between official China and Chinese on one side, while also being cautious or aware that they might be under pressure; try to offer them support and be more sensitive to pressures they might be facing. Of course that’s a tricky issue because they are not European citizens. We don’t have large communities of Chinese in Europe.

MO: [There are] quite a few, lots of students. I guess the point is, there are a lot of accusations [that] you are starting a witch hunt, and that’s not at all the point we are trying to make. The idea is, you have to differentiate between official China and the Chinese people. Official China is going to try to exert pressure on Chinese people in Europe, and that’s a fact and that is going on. But how do you react to that as a country? And the point should be, you have to protect any [resident] on your territory. You have to do as good a job as possible to protect Chinese people from that kind of influence and not so much identify Chinese people and think we have to mistrust them. Your duty as a country is to protect the people within your country, and try to prevent official China from trying to pressure them, blackmail them, recruit people. Obviously it’s hard to do, but it should be the main obligation of European countries.

CDT: As people become more aware and conscious of the Chinese influence, has there been any kind of backlash against Chinese students or others in Europe? In Australia, for example, this has become a big issue.

KSK: Right, and because they have such large Chinese communities, but here it has not been so much the case. If we talk about how should we react to the growing Chinese influence, I think we do need more conscious awareness of how to interact with the Chinese who are in Europe. I think a lot of European governments would say, oh, they are well integrated and don’t create any problems or trouble unlike certain other migrant groups. But this might not be enough if we really face it. Because I believe the Chinese government clearly would try to use them as tools and pressure them. And there is now talk from the United Front Work Department, a key department within the CCP when it comes to ensure political loyalty of key social groups outside the Party itself, that even Chinese who have a European passport are still Chinese.

MO: Again, countries have to make a better effort at protecting people on their soil.

KSK: But also, thinking about who might be a target and what people might be sensitive to placed in what kinds of institutional settings.

MO: I have seen cases where there was discrimination based on nationality, not so much ethnicity, where people with a German passport wouldn’t have that problem. Especially at the company level, there has been apprehension to hire Chinese interns. I have seen a lot of examples of that.

KSK: I’ve also heard examples of Chinese interns who took away information. I mean, they have been naïvely invited into very sensitive working contexts and granted access; German and European institutions should not do this. One should at least pay attention and take protective measures, also for the Chinese interns’ own protection, restricting access to sensitive information. I think this is a topic we have to think more about in the future.

CDT: What new issues or topics are you looking at now?

KSK: One aspect will clearly be to look at Chinese in Europe, how are they organized, what kinds of associations do we see, are there any topics they might become engaged in, vulnerabilities, linking these interests and topics to other European institutions or groups.

MO: Our other big ambition is to get a more complete picture, to map things more thoroughly and to get as much information in terms of numbers as possible. This is being done by colleagues at MERICS working on Chinese investment in Europe or by those who focus on the Belt and Road Initiative and track how many projects have actually been realized.

KSK: On Belt and Road, there seems to be a shift of sentiment, for example in Poland there seems to be growing doubts concerning Chinese investment, because not everything that is being promised is being delivered. A growing number of researchers do an important job of tracking these kinds of projects globally.

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