Thinking of Taking an Academic Job in China? Better Think Twice

Chinese flag stenciled on wall

[Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is a social scientist who has worked in China. The author requested anonymity.]

Across the Western world, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing serious damage to academic job markets. Prior to the pandemic, job openings that promised stable, meaningful employment were already few and far between in the social sciences. Now the situation is becoming dramatically worse. As universities face huge financial shortfalls, academics with previously stable jobs might find themselves threatened with dismissal or ‘voluntary’ redundancy. Those who were already precariously employed will find fewer opportunities still to remain in academia. And those who are about to conclude their doctorates may find few pathways to a stable, meaningful career, at least in Western academic systems.

If you belong to one of these three groups, it might just be that you are thinking about relocating internationally. More specifically, it might be that you are thinking about going to China. In the global academic hierarchy, China is a rising star. Chinese universities are pushing hard to do well in international academic competition. Academics in China churn out more papers per year than researchers in any other academic system. Importantly, public funding for Chinese universities is robust and job creation more extensive than at Western universities hard-hit by decades of underfunding and attempts at the de facto privatization nominally public higher education systems. At the same time, Chinese higher education is looking to internationalize and employ academics able to contribute to China’s national development priorities. Consequently, China has become an increasingly attractive destination for Western social scientists, both for those doing research in and on China and for those looking to continue their careers with meaningful, long-term perspectives.

I am one of those academics who relocated their careers to China. I am also one of those who left after spending several years at a Chinese university. In the following, I would like to describe some of my experiences and point to some of the possible implications of building an academic career as a foreigner in China. Even though I no longer work in the country, my experiences are fairly recent, and I continue to hear from colleagues who are still in the country. Nonetheless, please remember that this is not an academic text. It is a summary of personal observations about the potential and pitfalls of working in Chinese academia, and it should be read as such.

To begin with, it is important to note two features of Chinese public universities. First, these universities can be usefully understood as bureaucratic mechanisms that form part of the larger structure of the post-1949 part-state. In the context of progressive marketization and tentative internationalization, some universities have lost some of the features of communist top-down bureaucracy, while others have retained them to a large degree. Second, organisational processes at Chinese universities tend towards the opaque and the informal. Informal, personal networks and relationships – for example in the form of guanxi relationships of loyalty and mutual support – play a very large role in Chinese society. Conversely, formal institutional structures may be weak, and bureaucratic rules and procedures may be applied arbitrarily or not at all, without apparent rhyme or reason.

Moreover, for a number of reasons that I will not go into here, everyday communication may tend towards the vague, and organisations and their leaders often keep their decision-making processes unpredictable. In other words, this is very much a society in which insider-outsider distinctions matter, and in which you would do well to make sure that you are an insider. The term “foreigner” is a marker of this insider-outsider distinction, and you will hear it applied to yourself quite frequently. All this may apply in important ways to academic labour at Chinese universities.

One consequence of the foregoing is that it can be difficult for foreign academics to attain some sort of professional stability working in China. This begins with the negotiation of terms of employment. The terms – salary, benefits, working conditions – that were promised to me with my initial job offer were not at all what I found when I arrived to take up my post. Querying this, I was told, off the record, that the university’s powerful personnel department had reassessed and adjusted my terms of employment, without me being told. I have heard many similar stories from foreign colleagues. One, for example, had his contract readjusted and his salary reduced three times, following his arrival at his university. A further notable aspect of such incidents is that the decisions of bureaucratic “leaders” must not be queried openly, let alone challenged, given the steeply hierarchical nature of academic life in China. As far as I can tell, all this – a certain tendency towards the ‘informal’ in dealing with employment contracts, top-down and opaque decision making, and a lack of consultation – may happen as much to Chinese as to foreign academics. The difference is that foreign academics may be unprepared for such occurrences and that they may have relatively few resources to cope.

Things may go much better, though, and it is quite possible to build successful long-term academic careers in China. First, it goes without saying that prior familiarity with Chinese society and Chinese academia are essential, as is, in the case of many universities, fluency in Chinese. Some of China’s most internationalized universities offer administrative services in English and use English for academic communication. However, this is an exception to the norm. Fluency in Chinese is moreover absolutely necessary for everyday communication, unless one has access to the very expensive private infrastructure that caters to ‘expats’ working in business in metropolitan centers such as Beijing or Shanghai.

Second, planning about a potential move to China, it is important to identify the degree of prior internationalization of the university one is about to join. Some universities have relatively large numbers of foreign staff and students, while others may have none or only a few. Some universities have built international ties for years or even decades, while others have largely remained focused on academic life in China. These distinctions make a big difference, as they determine the extent to which the university administration will be able to accommodate foreigners in administrative processes designed exclusively for Chinese citizens within the larger structures of communist bureaucracy. When things go well, foreign academics are easily incorporated into these processes. When foreigners are a new and unfamiliar presence, even the spelling of a name in Latin letters may create bureaucratic chaos and lengthy delays.

Finally, finding a mentor in a senior academic position will make a big difference integrating foreign newcomers into everyday academic life and bureaucratic processes. Of the success stories I have heard from Western colleagues who have successfully built careers in at Chinese universities, many contained prominent mentions of such a mentor.

Before I conclude, there is still a lot more to say about academic life in China. I will continue this discussion in a separate post.

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