Hong Kong-based economics professor Carsten A. Holz asks an important question in this month's Far Eastern Economic Review: Have China Scholars All Been Bought? Of course, you know the answer:
Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.
Foreign academics must cooperate with academics in China to collect data and co-author research. Surveys are conducted in a manner that is acceptable to the Party, and their content is limited to politically acceptable questions. For academics in China, such choices come naturally. The Western side plays along.
China researchers are equally constrained in their solo research. Some Western China scholars have relatives in China. Others own apartments there. Those China scholars whose mother tongue is not Chinese have studied the language for years and have built their careers on this large and nontransferable investment. We benefit from our connections in China to obtain information and insights, and we protect these connections. Everybody is happy, Western readers for the up-to-date view from academia, we ourselves for prospering in our jobs, and the Party for getting us to do its advertising. China is fairly unique in that the incentives for academics all go one way: One does not upset the Party.
What happens when we don’t play along is all too obvious. We can’t attract Chinese collaborators. When we poke around in China to do research we run into trouble. ...China researchers across different disciplines may not all be equally affected. Economists and political scientists are likely to come up against the Party constraint frequently, and perhaps severely. But even sociologists or ethnographers can reach the forbidden zone when doing network studies or examining ethnic minority cultures.
Holz does not pull any punches, likening the Communist Party to the mafia. The examples he gives of 'doing research' are both fascinating and horrifying. Hat tip: China Challenges