Thinking of Taking an Academic Job in China? Better Plan Carefully

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Chinese universities are increasingly becoming increasingly attractive destinations for social researchers from abroad. On the one hand, Chinese academia is seeking to internationalize, employing growing numbers of foreign scholars, recruiting more foreign students, and competing actively for prestige in international rankings and league tables. On the other hand, the scarcity of stable post-PhD employment, exacerbated by COVID-19, means that academics may need to look for employment at the international level in order to continue their careers.

In my previous post, I pointed to broad disparities in the experiences of foreign academics working in the social sciences at Chinese universities. Steep hierarchies and profound inequalities are of course a feature of academic life at the international level. Nonetheless, a number of idiosyncrasies in the organisation of academic labor should be taken into account when considering a move to a Chinese university:

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

First, at what type of university are you going to work? In terms of organizational structures, working patterns, and contract terms, it seems useful to distinguish between three types of institutions. First, there are Chinese public universities. These universities are deeply rooted in the structures of the one-party state. In my experience, having worked in China for a number of years, the degree of internationalization at these universities may vary sharply, as may the extent to which they have retained the rigid bureaucratic structures and processes of the age of the planned economy.

Second, there are international schools or institutes within Chinese public universities, set up in cooperation with universities abroad. Set up to attract foreign expertise and develop international academic collaboration, these hybrid institutes may be characterized (or not) by a stronger commitment to attracting and retaining foreign academic staff.

Finally, there are the international university campuses, set up by Western universities in China’s metropolitan centers. These universities are distinctively cosmopolitan in their ethos and in their population of staff and students. However, in an age of ideological closure, at least some of them recently seem to have come under a certain degree of political pressure within China.

Second, how committed to internationalization is your university really? You may have received an offer of employment from a Chinese university. However, this does not necessarily mean that the university is interested in or committed to retaining you long-term. It will therefore be important to explore the university quite closely, if you are looking for more than a short stay in China, in order to, say, work on a specific research project or gain experience of living or working in the country. How many other foreign members of staff are there in your future school and at the university at large? How many of them are employed long-term, through the same contract system as Chinese academics, and how many are on fixed-term contracts created specifically for international staff? What are the university’s primary objectives in recruiting foreign staff? Is it seeking, for example, to bolster its standing in national and international rankings short-term by hiring more ‘foreigners’? Does it seem committed to internationalization and international academic dialogue at a deeper level, or is its scholarship largely focused on China and local developmental priorities?

Third, does the university have organisational structures to employ foreign academic staff and facilitate their integration? China’s international universities invariably do. However, the bureaucratic structures at Chinese public universities may or may not be able to cope with foreign staff. In this case, anything from opening a bank account to receive your salary to obtaining medical insurance to paying your taxes may become a terrible bureaucratic drama that will occupy your time and attention for months on end. For example, the university may encounter insoluble problems processing your tax declaration because your name is not composed of Chinese characters. Or it may take months for it to set up a salary bank account, as neither the university nor the bank know how to handle the bureaucratic procedures required for foreigners. Or their may be politically motivated restrictions on the number of international conference trips you are allowed to undertake, cutting you off from important international academic ties. And so forth.

At their heart, Chinese public universities are deeply parochial bureaucratic structures geared towards the party-state’s priorities for socio-economic development. In response to national and international pressures, some universities have recently begun to internationalize, with notably different degrees of enthusiasm. Others have not. You would do well to determine, as much as you can, into what category your prospective employer falls.

I raise these questions and concerns in response to real-life issues I experienced, witnessed, or was told about during my time working in China. None of them should be taken to imply that productive and satisfying academic careers are unavailable to foreign academics in China. Rather, my point is that the institutional culture of Chinese academia is widely divergent from what foreign and, in particular, Western academics might be used to or expect. In order for a move to China to be successful, this is an issue that must be taken seriously.

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

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