Thinking of Taking an Academic Job in China? Let’s Talk About ‘De-coupling’ and the ‘China Bubble’

China flag flying

Stable academic employment in the social sciences has become scarce at Western universities. The COVID-19 pandemic seems likely to exacerbate this lack of long-term, meaningful work, as universities address financial shortfalls and a decline in student recruitment with layoffs and hiring freezes. A move abroad therefore may seem like an attractive alternative. As a result of draconian lockdowns, mandatory quarantine, and rapid large-scale testing, Chinese academia seems to be surviving the pandemic relatively unscathed, and many universities are looking to recruit scholars from abroad. Academic employment websites such as now have dedicated China sections, and the universities who advertise there offer ostensibly attractive conditions to social researchers seeking to relocate to China. To what extent do the realities of social research in China live up to the favorable image created by these job ads?

One obvious concern is China’s political system and the strictures it imposes on social research. Loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party is expected of Chinese social scientists (and scholars in all disciplines) working at Chinese universities, and these days it is actively promulgated through mandatory, regular participation in political indoctrination events and ideological audits. Political indoctrination likewise forms a significant part of the curriculum, and students undergo intensive ideological formation as part of their degree program.

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.

Most immediately, teaching and learning are circumscribed by the presence of cameras and microphones in all four corners of the classroom. As a foreign social researcher coming to work in China, you will need to declare your willingness to abide by Chinese law and ideological standards, and your line manager will need to vouch for your political trustworthiness. Beyond this, you likely will not expected to undergo the ideological training program that forms an ongoing part of Chinese social researchers’ work life. However, you will be watched, and the content of your teaching and the topics of your research will be limited by what is deemed politically acceptable in a society in which freedom of thought and expression do not exist.

More importantly, you will find yourself in an institutional environment that is more and more de-coupling itself from international academic debates. ‘De-coupling’ has become something of a buzzword following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing political tensions between China and the United States. There is another level to this though, which, I think, pre-dates the Trump government and its aggressive foreign policy towards China. Over much of the past decade, since at least 2012, the pursuit of ideological purity has acquired a political importance which I had not had in decades. As a result, censorship and the surveillance state have grown precipitously, and the ideological regimentation of social research has expanded considerably. To achieve and maintain ideological purity, efforts are being made to withdraw China into a cognitive, intellectual, and emotional ‘China bubble’.

For the social sciences in China, this entails a far-reaching contradiction. On the one hand, social science departments and scholars have for a number of years responded to calls for China to improve its international academic standing. Performance in international league tables matters greatly in China. Publications in high impact factor journals are widely regarded as a prized achievement for Chinese social scientists, and, beyond such instrumental concerns, many participate actively in international academic networks. On the other hand, there is now considerable pressure against such international intellectual involvement, and academic administrations have devised new organisational mechanisms that militate against it. Universities may sharply limit travel to international social science conferences abroad, and the organisation of conferences involving ‘foreigners’ within China may be subject to political audits that are so long-winded and laborious that actually holding the event may be impossible. Subscriptions to international journal databases may be cancelled, and available content limited by censorship. And so forth. The concrete nature of these restrictions seems to vary by region, but they are expanding across the board.

While these restrictions seem to be aimed primarily at Chinese scholars, they will very likely affect your scholarship. In addition, you will also need to cope with the effects of censorship of the larger Chinese media and communications environment. For example, most Western communications tools, such as Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc., are either blocked outright or do not work reliably, even with VPN software to bypass the Great Firewall. Your use of academic social networks, e.g. on Twitter or Facebook, will likewise rely on a VPN service, as will your ability to access foreign news media. VPN is illegal in China, but it seems to be tolerated by the authorities. Some of China’s international universities also have agreements with the authorities that allow them to bypass censorship of the internet. However, during ‘sensitive’ periods of the year, for example during major meetings of the Chinese Communist Party, it may be blocked altogether, cutting you off from important communications networks.

In summary, if you move to China, you will face considerable difficulties maintaining international academics networks and participating in international academic debates.

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