China Studies in the Era of China’s Ascendance

Masuo Chisako

General Outline

As Chinese society bristles with life and as its ascendance draws much attention from around the world, researchers on issues related to China are witnessing the social role they are expected to perform rapidly change, along with the methodologies with which, and the viewpoint from which, they carry out their research. In the following essay, a China researcher, who is trying hard to reorient herself to these changes, talks about her own trial and error experiences.


Main Text

Nowadays, if you visit the bookstore you will see on display many books with titles like “Where is China heading?” In fact, you don’t even have to visit a bookstore to get a feel for how China is arousing public interest in Japan. Commuter trains in Tokyo are full of advertisements for popular magazines competing with each other to boost their sales with announcements of sensational news stories about China that are carried in their latest issues. It appears to have become an established practice of the Japanese media to portray China as the villain. Without doubt, China has undergone many rapid and violent changes in the past decade or so, and what is more, while doing so, China has given rise to a seemingly endless series of strange and outrageous stories that have made news headlines not only in Japan, but throughout the world. And having often been proved to be of a nature that is almost unimaginable for ordinary Japanese people, such stories have left the indelible impression on the minds of a majority of Japanese that “China is beyond our comprehension.”

Yet China is continuing to grow ever more important to Japan. In the past, anybody taking a dislike to China could choose to keep their distance. The dire situation surrounding Japan today, however, admits of no such choice. Whereas China in 2000 was approximately one third the size of Japan in terms of GDP, it has continued to grow by leaps and bounds, outstripping Japan and replacing it in 2010 as the world’s second largest economic power. China lies only a few hours’ flight from Tokyo across the East China Sea, unlike the United States, which is the world’s current largest economy in terms of GDP. Having a staggeringly large population of more than 1.3 billion people, and jubilant with its high-flying “can-do” and “go-go” attitude, the newly emergent economic giant is now changing the economic and political order of the world by wielding its formidable influence. Japan is no longer faced with the question of whether or not it likes China, but rather it now finds itself in a situation where, in order to keep its own society vigorous and dynamic and maintain its economic activities at the current level, it has no choice but to face up to and deal with China properly and to find a way to coexist. Given this state of things, Japanese researchers on China are suddenly charged with a weighty social responsibility for providing the Japanese public with convincing explanations of China that will help people make sense of it.

The question now though is how well China researchers in Japan are prepared to carry out this obligation. This may sound blunt, but I must honestly say that we are far from well prepared for the task at hand. China studies in Japan have not yet managed to establish a reliable methodology for analyzing present-day China, the number of researchers is far too small, our research expertise is quite deficient, and we are not competent at working as a team. Changes taking place in China, both in terms of scale and speed, are so overwhelming that the present, small population of scholars and researchers in Japan can never hope to keep up with them all. (It must be kept in mind, that it takes at least 10 years to train a new generation of researchers.)

To speak on the basis of the developments I have personally witnessed in the last 15 years or so, the methodology of China studies has undergone a radical transformation. In 1997, I was writing my graduation thesis as an undergraduate student at The University of Tokyo. Many of the existing works I borrowed from the libraries of the Departments of International Relations and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the university’s Komaba Campus for use as reference materials were reports of findings obtained by means of a content analysis approach. Based on the premise that with China shutting itself off behind a “bamboo curtain” the amount of information available on the country was seriously limited, studies employing this approach typically analyzed the perceptions of Chinese leaders, their policy decisions, and so on, by statistically processing news stories as reported in the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) and other sources. Upon entering the graduate school of the same university, we were given training by China researchers senior to us on the techniques of making fixed-point observations of newspapers and magazines that the Chinese Communist Party and government leaders were using as their “mouthpieces,” and methodically trace changes in these perceptions over time. This technique still remains effective to a certain extent, and I myself use it occasionally.

I must add, however, that as a young graduate student, I felt somewhat uncomfortable to see that this technique had remained the mainstay of China studies in Japan. I had studied abroad at the Peking University as an exchange student from The University of Tokyo for one year from 1996, and had had chances to exchange words (or engage in verbal disputes) with other students and the ordinary citizens of Beijing on politics and diplomatic issues. Not only did these encounters make me aware that Chinese people were, by nature, very high spirited, but they also induced me to start asking whether it would perhaps be imperative to look more deeply into the way in which the combined energy of 1.3 billion people as a whole, in addition to decisions made by a handful of policy makers, was changing China. Driven by this question, I, like many other China researchers of my generation, made a wide range of attempts to edge my way into Chinese society, look for scarce materials, and interview people from various walks of life. This explains why we sometimes received compliments from the more senior China researchers in Japan, who would say: “We’re envious of young researchers like you, who have such a good command of the language, and can feel so at ease among Chinese people.” But since then, the situation in China has drastically changed, and we now live in an era characterized by the widespread use of social media. I cannot help but recall that during my first stay in China in 1996, the personal computers available were all equipped with black-and-white displays, and in order to use these machines for online communications one had to contend with keying in several commands and sending electronic mails written only in the roman alphabet, and not in the Chinese characters used in China and Japan. (If my Chinese friends catch me reminiscing like this, I guess they would make fun of me by calling me a “fossil.”) Given the fact that the object of our research moves quickly before we are able to establish our research methodology, it is little wonder that many of our findings tend to remain characterized basically as portrayals of the present state of things in China and not as genuine academic research findings.

Furthermore, the establishment of China’s presence in a wide range of fields on a global scale has also brought with it a qualitative shift in the basic requirements for China studies. In the past, when there was a tacit understanding among China researchers in Japan that nobody could really know what was actually happening inside China, and when China had only a limited effect on Japan, researchers could get away with carrying on their in-group discussions and referring to China as an “idiosyncratic country.” This practice is no longer viable when we are experiencing such a flood of information concerning China, with China’s behavior and external impacts watched very intently not only by themselves, but also by observers around the world. Given this state of things, China researchers are hard-pressed to offer intelligible explanations about the internal affairs of China in plain words and in a manner as concretely as possible so that non-specialists of China studies can understand with ease. Furthermore, it is no longer possible for individual China researchers to keep track of every single issue of importance taking place in China’s revitalized society. A number of issues or events have made news headlines in the past few years, including the Japan–China controversy over differences in historical perceptions, contaminated frozen dumplings being exported from China to Japan, China’s policy to reduce quotas for rare-earth exports, and the collision between two high-speed trains on a viaduct in the suburb of Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province in July 2011, to name but a few. I doubt that there is any other country in the world that racks, so hard as China, the brains of foreign researchers studying its society.

It is largely unnecessary (or impossible, to be more precise) for China researchers to accumulate knowledge related to other fields in anticipation of forthcoming serious incidents; we can just ask for the opinions of experts in other fields when something beyond our comprehension takes place. I find it important for China researchers to carry out in-depth studies by continuing to base ourselves in the disciplines of our specialty, such as political sciences, economics, sociology, and international relations. Furthermore, in my view, it will also become increasingly important for China researchers to hone their integrative skills and cultivate a large circle of acquaintances in various other fields, maintain friendly ties with them, ask for and absorb their specialist opinions when necessary, and make an integrated and well-balanced evaluation of the problem at hand by duly taking such opinions into consideration.

Let me take, for example, the field of foreign affairs, the field of my own specialization. As China’s diplomatic activities have gathered greater momentum, grown ever more complex, and come into greater need for specialized expertise, China researchers in this field have increasingly come under pressure to seek advice from experts in related academic disciplines, such as economics and national security, or even from researchers studying foreign countries other than China. In the past, one word from Mao Zedong or from Deng Xiaoping could settle an argument on diplomatic policy; their words were law. However, none of the top leaders who have subsequently taken the helm of the country have been vested with such supreme authority.

Since China’s international power has come to rest increasingly on its economic and military capabilities, it is quite natural for the bureaucrats in charge of the state’s economic affairs and leaders of the People’s Liberation Army to have gained a greater say in the deliberation of diplomatic policy, while the influence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices has comparatively waned. This means that in order to properly understand China’s external activities, it is imperative for us to be acquainted with the concrete way in which each of the various actors inside China are involved in the country’s diplomatic affairs. It should be pointed out, however, that it is far from easy to grasp such a situation accurately and holistically.

What is the best way of accurately understanding the diplomatic situation in China today? I have been searching for a suitable methodology, and as part of my efforts, I have tentatively made it a policy to make trips, as often as I can, both inside and outside the Chinese border, and to look at the country both from within and from without. The purpose of such trips is to see firsthand how the vitalized external activities of China are spreading to its neighboring countries in a certain area and through what channels, and consequently how they are changing the existing order of the area concerned. On one occasion, I joined a number of Chinese merchants and rode a long-distance bus from Kunming, Yunnan Province, to Laos. This trip taught me firsthand that much of China’s economic expansion into Laos has been carried out on the initiative of individual merchants, instead of on the initiative of the government, as is often claimed to be the case in Japan. Trips I made to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province on other occasions showed me that there were instances in which local governments had taken the initiative so strongly that it pushed the central government into launching projects for the promotion of economic cooperation with neighboring countries. If looked at in reference to the contextual implications of China’s external relations, these findings suggest that many of the Chinese projects meant to promote regional economic cooperation in East Asia actually mirror not only the political wills of Beijing, but also, and more strongly, the calculated economic gains that the local governments and individual merchants concerned are hoping to earn. These inquiries, though unspectacular and unpretentious, are indispensable for understanding the complex and multilayered external activities of present-day China.

It often proves to be a considerably arduous task to perform research in a locality virtually untouched by our predecessors and on themes seldom dealt with by traditional specialists on diplomatic policy, and to properly analyze the data collected, especially because there are few preceding studies to which we can look for cues. Despite these obstacles, I have been able to make at least some headway in my research undertaking primarily because I have been fortunate enough to benefit a great deal from invaluable pieces of advice and cooperation offered by experts in neighboring fields and by government officials from China and its neighboring countries. (On my own part, I have taken some care to keep my language skills at least minimally operational, maintain the nerve and knack of becoming friends with strangers, and keep the digestive power of my stomach strong enough to enable me to live happily anywhere on earth!) In 2008, I completed my doctoral research by focusing my attention rather narrowly on the process by which Chinese foreign policy was subjected to re-examination inside China during the early phases of the reform and open-door policy. Subsequently, with much help from researchers in neighboring fields, I have become able to look at China from a much broader perspective than before, and I am now taking great joy in what I am doing as a researcher.

Now that China’s ascendance as a global power has become an established fact of everyday life around the world, it is no longer possible to produce compelling research findings unless we properly assess China’s behavior by putting it in the context of the various developments taking place around the world. China researchers must be equipped with an integrative and comprehensive ability to take a holistic view of many sorts of complex problems and to analyze them in an integrative way. At present, I am fully aware that my competence leaves much to be desired, and that I am not yet qualified to start fulfilling my dream, but I look forward to the day when, after gaining enough experience, I can feel competent enough to organize a research team that will analyze, with the help of experts from neighboring fields, Chinese society in a multilayered way.



Masuo Chisako
Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies, Kyushu University

See Masuo Chisako, Chûgoku Seiji Gaikô no Tenkanten: Kaikaku-kaihô to "Dokurisu Jishu no Taigai Seisakub" (China Looks Back: Mao's Legacy in the Open-door Era), Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 2010.