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The History and Future of China Studies in the US

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The History and Future of China Studies in the US

Things may look bleak today, but it’s a far cry from the era of zero contact in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The History and Future of China Studies in the US
Credit: Depositphotos

Knowing China is more important than ever in this era of China-U.S. strategic competition, and the field of China Studies bears the responsibility to generate a broader and deeper understanding of China. Researchers have done an excellent job, especially since the establishment of China-U.S. relations in the 1970s. From the period of no access to China during the 1960s to today, the field of China Studies has become broader and deeper. Access to China has allowed scholars to expand the areas of study and build up new fields of knowledge.

The study of China before the era of China-U.S. communication was limited to the study of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology and its elite politics. Information on China during this era was extremely restricted. Scholars went to Hong Kong to gain limited and indirect access to the People’s Republic of China by interviewing refugees from the mainland. If they could receive a piece of newspaper used as a food wrapper, they felt the joy of discovering a gold mine. 

Scholars such as Joseph Fewsmith and Alice Miller perfected the art of open-source research through reading the People’s Daily. For example, scholars scrutinized newspaper photographs of important CCP meetings and ceremonies to understand the rise and fall of political elites by analyzing where everyone sits. While the information was valuable, the overall understanding of China during this period was limited, and the accumulation of knowledge was difficult.

After China opened up in the late 1970s, the study of China expanded tremendously. Once confined to Hong Kong, searching for episodic information, American scholars entered China and interviewed officials. Top CCP leaders even hosted young American scholars several times. China’s growing curiosity and willingness to engage with the outside world further expanded communication. For example, renowned China watcher Michel Oksenberg fostered a love affair with Zouping county in Shandong; he even became the “honorary mayor of Zouping.” The strong bond between Oksenberg and Zouping continues to this day. Stanford Professor Jean Oi, Oksenberg’s former student, led students to visit Zouping this year.  

The rapidly growing China-U.S. communication since the 1980s allowed scholars to expand their research scope beyond CCP ideology and elite politics. The most important area of study is policymaking and implementation in China. Oskenberg and Kenneth Lieberthal discovered the tiao-kuai function (the vertical line of agencies across geographic areas and the horizontal line of different agencies within a geographic area) by tracing the flow of government budgets. To navigate this complex tiao-kuai system, they found that Chinese officials follow leadership relations, in which superiors can issue binder orders to subordinates, and professional relations, in which superiors can only send non-binding cooperation requests. 

David Lampton found that Chinese policies are the outcome of cut-throat and endless bargaining between agencies during policymaking and implementation. If agencies cannot bargain for an answer, they kick the problem upward to higher leaders. However, cadres tend to avoid seeking help from superiors because it might result in one side losing the bargain entirely, and higher officials might view them as incompetent. Therefore, they just continue the never-ending bargaining until they find a solution both sides can accept.

Another area that came to life due to increasing access is the study of the Chinese political economy. Increasing research trips to China allowed scholars to see the market reform firsthand. Based on her observation of Township and Village Enterprises (TVE) in southern Jiangsu, Jean Oi found that local government played a significant role in managing and fostering TVE growth. However, Huang Yasheng, studying TVEs in Chinese inland provinces such as Anhui, found that many TVEs were private companies registering as TVEs to gain protection from local governments against ideological crackdowns. Therefore, local governments had much less influence in managing their business operations.

Increasing interaction with the Chinese people allowed flourishing research on state-society relations. Benefiting from freer access to China and the limited political reform during the Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012) periods, scholars studied the changing interaction between the government and its citizens. Joseph Fewsmith detailed local political reforms that allowed party members to nominate and elect county-level leaders openly. Andrew Mertha found that policy entrepreneurs outside of the government can significantly influence policy outcomes. 

Lily Tsai found that local communities can utilize their embedded connection with local officials to shape their actions and make them contribute to public projects. David O’Brien’s work on “rightful resistance” and “relational repression” paint the interaction between disgruntled citizens and local governments. Citizens use CCP rhetoric and slogans to appeal to higher-level officials and protest local predatory behaviors. Local governments, meanwhile, utilize protesters’ social relations to coerce dissenters into silence.

Even in elite politics, which existed before, the new academic access to China led to greater findings. Scholars such as Cheng Li benefit from having Chinese contacts from the highest level to understand inter-party dynamics. The increasing availability of Chinese newspapers, journal articles, and memoirs expanded the scope of analyzing elite politics, from reading interpersonal relations and observing where everyone sits in meetings to studying leadership as an institution. 

For example, Guo Xuezhi studied the role of a core leader by using document sources and party history. He found that the CCP oscillates between a core leader and a collective leadership cycle. The title of the core is not given; the party leader must earn the core title by demonstrating outstanding leadership capability. The study of elite politics shows that while the availability of interview opportunities can lead to new knowledge, old methods can also generate new ideas by analyzing newly available materials.

As Xi Jinping cracks down on independent thinking in Chinese academia, free access to China by foreign scholars is also being repressed. Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex found that foreign scholars face problems such as restricted access to archives and visa refusals. While the number of scholars facing these problems is low, each case has a broader impact on the already worried academia. With each individual case, news spreads among scholars, causing anxiety in China Studies. 

The CCP is also more willing to punish junior scholars and Ph.D. students than established scholars. As a result, many scholars self-censor to protect not only themselves and their careers but also their connections in China. The restrictions are not just impacting foreign scholars; many Chinese scholars face similar problems.

The bigger problem is that scholars never know where the red line is. The securitization under Xi makes every topic, even topics scholars have researched for decades, a potentially national security-related topic. Furthermore, the revised Anti-Espionage Law in 2023 allows anyone to accuse everyone as a spy. This blurred red line makes China Studies scholars more likely to self-censor and ask fewer meaningful research questions.

However, despite the depressing recent developments, the future of China Studies is bright. Compared to the era before China-U.S. relations, there are more ways than ever for American scholars to research China and generate new knowledge. 

First, this is the golden era of open-source analysis. While the generation of the 1960s and 1970s had to celebrate finding People’s Daily clippings used as food wrappers, scholars today can access every issue of People’s Daily since the 1940s via the internet. The click of a mouse can open up Qiushi and other important party journals. The increasing personality cult around Xi Jinping has made the Chinese government document Xi’s every action and publish his speeches, which are all great resources for research. The Chinese government’s efforts to open more information started by making better websites, allowing scholars to find documents, reports, and even government agency budgets.

Second, for a long time, China Studies scholars tried to preserve China’s uniqueness and rejected China as a comparative case. In this new era, scholars are ready to generate insights by comparing knowledge from China with other countries. For example, Andrew Mertha and William Lowry found that despite different political systems, anti-dam protests are similar across China, the United States, and Australia. Kristen Looney found that despite using a similar mobilization strategy to develop the countryside, China, South Korea, and Taiwan had uneven results. Yuen Yuen Ang has used cross-disciplinary and comparative approaches to shed new light on China’s economic model. 

Third, as China becomes a global power, scholars can study China from elsewhere. Ye Min and Ching Kwan Lee’s works are great examples of studying China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects and their impact on the locality. Maria Repnikova’s work analyzes the effectiveness of China’s soft power projection, especially in Africa. Mertha finished his study on China-Cambodia relations during the late 1970s entirely in Cambodia by interviewing the former Khmer Rouge members. As China becomes more influential worldwide, scholars will have more opportunities to study Chinese political behavior and its impact outside China.

In this era of China-U.S. competition, it is more important than ever for the U.S. government to support China Studies. Sun Tzu wrote in his famous “The Art of War” that the only way to remain undefeated is “knowing the enemy and knowing oneself.” Rather than considering China Studies as a weakness – a window for alleged Chinese infiltration – policymakers in Washington must realize that the most significant advantage of the United States over China is that American scholars understand China much better than Chinese scholars understand the United States.

In 2020, a student at Tsinghua University, the best university in China, started writing her graduation thesis. Her selected topic was the politics of abortion in the United States. However, her adviser in American Studies shot this topic down and called it “a trivial matter in U.S. politics.” Two years later, Roe v. Wade was overturned, and abortion became a hot topic of elections. This episode demonstrated Chinese academia’s level of understanding of the United States.

For the United States to maintain and expand its advantage over China in academia, the U.S. government must stop the neo-McCarthyism that shut down The China Project and drove Cheng Li to Hong Kong. The U.S. government should also encourage academic exchanges and help scholars to research in China, starting by bringing back the Fulbright China program.