As a social scientist working in the field of Chinese politics, I note with interest the speed with which perceptions of China changed these last months. A Cold War mentality is detectable.
We hear from many parts of the world that China’s rise as a superpower is a challenge to the status quo. Politicians and media often label China’s Party-state as an illiberal regime. Nobody should trust it to play a positive role globally, not even in science.
Such criticisms have accelerated and turned into a movement-like wave, especially so under the Trump presidency. In the US, it has reached the level of a shrill crescendo during the Corona crisis.
Shrill as the criticisms may seem, China’s claims to innocence are no less high-pitched. China’s authoritarian Party-state has little tolerance with critics, neither abroad nor at home. This is especially true under Xi Jinping’s leadership, and more so during the Corona crisis. China’s leadership is not shy about admitting it.
While the Communist Party pursues an active and engaging science diplomacy internationally, it has strengthened its control with the organization of the country’s research environments; it demands political loyalty from the field and openly criticizes Chinese researchers with liberal inclinations or international connections.
At the same time, some governments, think tanks and media across the world accuse Chinese researchers of seeking to influence foreign research environments or to exploit them for illicit purposes, with the backing of the Chinese Party-state. Chinese entities of different hues have also come under critical scrutiny in the US and the EU. They are handled with suspicion; they may be sanctioned or even barred from entry or further operation.
At home, I was quite surprised to learn that after 10 years of collaboration, my university one-sidedly scrapped the ongoing collaboration with Fudan University without discussion.
Navigating this fast-changing landscape is not easy for us or for Chinese social scientists. Last year I wrote about concerns for academic freedom in social science in China, and the Corona crisis has been a time for reflection about the way to counteract this.
Yet, although we are under pressure to accommodate public opinion, and the Communist Party of China demands that our Chinese colleagues align with their ideas, our common enterprise must still be that of independent critical research.
China will not go away; we must find new ways to do research on China and work with our Chinese partners in responsible and transparent ways, while dealing with the changing perceptions and the escalating Cold War mentality that pervades scientific collaboration. We must insist with our trusted partners that we maintain the bridges that we spent decades to build. Tearing them down is unfortunately much easier than building them.
Jørgen Delman is Professor of China Studies at Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS), University of Copenhagen.