Germany’s contentious China debate

Sascha Klotzbücher's picture

In an op-ed (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung F..A.Z., March 9), Sinology professors Bjoern Alpermann (University of Wuerzburg) and Gunter Schubert (University of Tuebingen) branded criticism of self-censorship and appeasement within German-language China studies toward the Chinese government as "crusaderism“. (

With ad hominem allegations rarely seen in German academic contexts, both authors called discussants of this academic discourse „moral crusaders“ (author's translation) and established China scholars were labelled as „new crusaders“ (author's translation). Alpermann and Schubert brushed away arguments by claiming that there is no evidence for a growing influence of China on German China studies.

Andreas Fulda (University of Nottingham), Mareike Ohlberg (German Marshall Fund), David Missal (Sinologist and Tibet Initiative), Horst Fabian (independent scholar), and Sascha Klotzbuecher (University of Goettingen) have replied with their own op-ed titled "Willing to compromise without limits?" (F.A.Z., March 16).

You can read the German version here (paywalled):  

Pre-print of the German version:


English  translation of the op-ed:

Willing to compromise without limits?


In view of Xi's policy of repression, China studies must rethink its role. Ignoring problems and stigmatizing critical voices are the wrong way to go. A reply to an op-ed by Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert.  


By Andreas Fulda, Mareike Ohlberg, David Missal, Horst Fabian and Sascha Klotzbücher.


Last week, sinology professors Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert branded the criticism of self-censorship and appeasement within German-language China studies toward the Chinese government that has flared up in recent years as "crusaderism" (F.A.Z., March 9). Critics of the conformist course, including authors of this article, were defamed as "moral crusaders" and stigmatized as defilers of their own nests. The authors brush away arguments by claiming that there is no evidence for a growing influence of China on German China studies.


The opposite is true: In the International Journal of Human Rights, Andreas Fulda and David Missal criticize on an empirical basis that "China research at German universities [is] highly dependent on 'questionable' funding and many of its China-related study programs could no longer be offered without financial support from the People's Republic of China." Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships. This thesis is based on more than a hundred requests to public authorities made by Missal under freedom of information laws, which can be viewed on the website There, it is documented that German universities receive several million euros from China every year without much effort, often several hundred thousand euros per university. Both the University of Würzburg and the University of Tübingen, where Alpermann and Schubert teach, have left the inquiries unanswered.


That the grants are not trivial sums becomes clear when one considers all the things that can and often are financed with them: Endowed professorships; research assistants for senior professors in the context of projects financed by the German side; financial project support at German universities, entire conferences at German universities or at least the travel expenses of the Chinese members; lectures, conference attendance and travel expenses of German university personnel in China; lectures applied for funding at a Confucius Institute and thus formally organized by it, including room rent and catering; sinological journals; subsidized teaching at sinology or Chinese studies courses by personnel sent from China, and much more.


Furthermore, Alpermann and Schubert doubt that German universities are dependent on Chinese donors. But even very small financial contributions lead to considerable dislocations. According to Freie Universität Berlin's (FU) vice president for international affairs, Verena Blechinger-Talcott, an endowed professorship at the FU is funded with 500,000 euros for five years from China, initially with Beijing as the judicial arbitration site. In a public hearing before the Berlin House of Representatives on May 17, 2021, Blechinger-Talcott stated for the record: "It was about a professorship for teaching Chinese ... for which we had and have no own funding possibilities in the budget of Freie Universität (authors' translation)." Berlin State Secretary Steffen Krach replied "that the FU is always in a position" to "finance this independently (authors' translation)."


As recently as September 2020, Duisburg-based China scholar Thomas Heberer argued at an expert discussion organized by the Left Party: "The only thing coming out of the Confucius Institute is language instruction in the master's program, because the university itself has no funds to hire additional teachers (authors' translation)." The Confucius Institutes and the professors of Chinese and East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen involved in it had hit the headlines in October 2021 after the presentation of a biography of Xi Jinping by journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges was initially canceled without comment at the behest of the Chinese Consul General in Düsseldorf. Neither the Confucius Institute nor the university, but only the publisher who had been disinvited, had publicized this self-censorship. The then Federal Minister of Education, Karliczek, then advised universities in a letter to the German Rectors' Conference to review their cooperation with the Confucius Institutes and to seek exchange with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service. Contrary to Alpermann and Schubert's assumption, there are indeed financial and institutional dependencies.


Mareike Ohlberg, a staff member of the German Marshall Fund, is accused by the authors of serving and reinforcing a "China-critical narrative in the German and international media (authors' translation)" with her research. It is understandable that media coverage of China has become more critical independently of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the People's Republic in light of the People's Republic's regression to an autocratic leader state, the cultural genocide in Xinjiang, the suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the threatening military gestures toward Taiwan. Alpermann and Schubert, meanwhile, do not shy away from resorting to a popular motif of Chinese propaganda: Allegedly controlled by the United States, Western media paint as negative a picture of the People's Republic as possible. What they omit is how the Chinese government itself contributes to this image. The decoupling of the communication spheres between Europe and China is not, as the authors believe, attributable to the "'decoupling delusion' of a China-critical narrative of politically interested circles (authors' translation)," but rather the logical consequence of the "Great Firewall," with which the party-state shields the Chinese population from the outside world.


Naming the price of access


Alpermann and Schubert postulate three prerequisites for a proper engagement with China: "First, access to the country; second, the rejection of a 'moral aptitude test' for China researchers; and third, adherence to dialogue with Chinese universities (authors' translation)." All three points play an important role, but they must not lead to a situation in which China research is blindfolded and only studies what is tolerated by the Chinese side. This kind of research would make itself obsolete.


Sascha Klotzbücher has shown in his research that field research by foreign China scholars in the People's Republic of China takes place in a highly monitored, politically restricted field. The act of self-censorship associated with the inevitable "embeddedness" that is consciously or unconsciously demanded, especially upon entry, must be disclosed and methodologically anchored.


At no point do the authors refer to the self-critical discussion that has been going on for years, unfortunately only by a few, about the state of the discipline, the role of intellectuals in China, and the field approach of China studies. Instead, they argue for "creative research strategies (authors' translation)" and "tactical compromises in research design (authors' translation)" to maintain field access. What these trade-offs consist of, however, they do not elaborate. Here they miss the opportunity to provide examples of what compromises they themselves made and what they achieved as a result. Also missing is a reflection on what influence such trade-offs have on epistemological content and how this can be made clear methodologically. As Samantha Hoffman has shown in her doctoral dissertation on regime security, it is possible to conduct excellent China research from abroad without field access. Since it would have been impossible to conduct interviews with cadres on this topic, she relied on publicly available party documents. On this basis, she was able to outline the methods the Communist Party uses to defend its authority.


The value of interpersonal contacts between Chinese and Western academics is undeniable. However, the authors fail to note the extent to which the Communist Party hinders open exchanges between China and Germany. For example, Mimi Leung reports for University World News that it has "has greatly restricted the number of academics and researchers allowed to physically attend conferences overseas" and that "(the) rules have now been extended to online conferences." Participants, Leung added, "must undertake to keep secretsand not jeopardise the reputation of Chinese institutions." Professors at Chinese universities go to jail for critical blog posts or, like Xu Zhangrun, are banned from the university for his criticism of Xi's Corona crisis management. When Deng Xiangchao criticized Mao Zedong in 2017 for the millions of deaths caused by the "Great Leap Forward," he was promptly dismissed. In this respect, there are reasonable doubts about Alpermann and Schubert's general assertion that Chinese universities are places where "there are opportunities for critical debate with Western perspectives on China, and vice versa (authors' translation)."


China research in a dilemma


Of particular concern, however, is the authors' use of questionable crusador metaphors to devalue legitimate discourse about the self-understanding and norms of China studies. From their professorial pulpit fellow scholars and other professional participants in the discourse are dismiss as "new crusaders." With the attribute "moral" they try to neutralize their arguments as being alien to science. Neglecting relevant facts, they limit themselves to personal attacks. In doing so, they themselves leave the realm of academic discourse. Their polemical threats of exclusion are an obvious attempt to discipline the field of China studies.


Sinology, which originated as textual scholarship, has evolved into social scientific China studies in recent decades. Access to the field has been attained through intensively cultivated, often individual, partnerships and friendships. The desire to continue contact with China is understandable. At the same time, however, the space for free academia and cooperation is visibly narrowing there. Methodologically, this ambivalence catches Chinese studies unprepared. All of a sudden, they have to put their own sinological research position in the spotlight and justify it publicly.


This confronts them with a dilemma: cooperation with possibly bad compromises or free science in the service of truth? What consequences are to be drawn from this must urgently be discussed internally in academia and on a political level. At both levels, the goal must be to ensure academic standards: openness, authenticity, commitment to truth, the right of doubt and criticism.


Such criteria will be difficult to enforce if the willingness to compromise demanded by the totalitarian party-state is signaled in advance as the price of academic cooperation. It is quite astonishing how many German scholars of China do not question the official narrative in their choice of topics and methods. The situation resembles the schism between Putin-understanders and -critics in the Russia debate. For China studies not to become an end in itself, but to produce knowledge and benefits for society here as well as there, a paradigm shift is needed. An open debate without regard to sensitivities and well-trodden patterns of cooperation is overdue.


Andreas Fulda is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.


Mareike Ohlberg is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. 


David Missal is a sinologist and human rights activist with the Tibet Initiative Germany.


Horst Fabian conducts research on Cuba and the PRC and works as a citizen diplomat to promote cooperative civil society relations between Europe and China.


Sascha Klotzbücher is the Acting Chair of Society and Economics of Modern China at the East Asian Seminar of the University of Göttingen.


This text appeared in the March 16, 2022 print edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.) in Forschung und Lehre.






Dear all,

Since it is always important to hear the arguments of both sides, and for the sake of completeness, here is the link to an English translation of the original FAZ op-ed text by Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert: ,

and to parts of a debate enfolding afterwards on LinkedIn, including another response by B. Alpermann and G. Schubert: .  

Best regards,
Anna Ahlers

Thanks to Professor Ahlers for providing the links.

For those who have not been following, the full debate is very much worth checking out.

I would like to second Thomas DuBois's recommendation to follow (and contribute to) this debate. Beyond the German specifics (which, for instance, involve constitutional law aspects not applicable elsewhere), it deals with an issue that is relevant to China scholars anywhere: Can China scholars be trusted to conduct research in and on China involving cooperation with Chinese partners in a politically and ethically responsible manner? Or do dependencies (e.g., financial or visa-related) created by cooperation with Chinese colleagues and institutions disqualify them from making that judgment call and require regulation of China-related research by Western governments, funding agencies, and university administrations?

This affects everyone outside of the PRC engaged in any kind of scientific cooperation with PRC-based institutions: scholars in the humanities as well the social and natural sciences, engineering and industry-supported research, universities that maintain branch campuses, research centres, or study-abroad programmes in the PRC, etc.

Similar issues are probably already being debated in other national academic communities; connecting these debates might be mutually enlightening for all.

Philip Clart
Leipzig University, Germany

On Thursday, 24 March Professor Schubert asked me via LinkedIn to provide more specific information about my work on financial dependencies in the British higher education sector. Please find below my reply from Friday, 25 March 2022 (translated from German with the help of DeepL):

"Gunter Schubert

I have summarized my experiences in the UK in an article for APuZ:

Fulda (2021), Preserving Science Autonomy. China and science in the UK, February 12, 2021, From Politics and Contemporary History.

I am also a member of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG).

We have developed a Model Code of Conduct for UK universities.

I have also advised the University of Nottingham, Universities UK, the Foreign Affairs Committee, APPG Hong Kong, and the Cabinet Office on reducing institutional and financial dependencies from China.

As you can see, we have been advocating for greater transparency and accountability in higher education here in the UK for some time."

Translated with (free version)

In a LinkedIn post from Friday, 25 March Professor Alpermann raised the issue of financial dependencies on China in British higher education. He argued that funding from China to German universities can only be measured in the thousandths. Even with unreported contributions he suggested that they unlikely make up more than 0,6% of the total amount of public funding for German universities (32,7 billion Euro). Please find below my response from Friday, 25 March (translated from German with the help of DeepL).

"Björn Alpermann

In my opinion, third-party funding plays an (overly) important role in the UK as well as in Germany. 

Matthias Becker has shown in an article for Deutschlandfunk Kultur that basic funding is not always sufficient for research. 

And it is idle to compare the percentage of funding from China with the total amount of public funding to German universities. Measured against Germany's gross domestic product (GDP) of 3,570.6 billion (2021), the 32.7 billion in spending on German universities that you cite is also only less than 1% of GDP. Such comparisons are naturally lopsided. 

From the perspective of individual scientists and their research institutes-especially in the humanities and social sciences-annual project funds of 100,000 euros and more already represent a lot of money. German universities should therefore also create transparency in the field of sinology and social science research on China."

Translated with (free version)

Since Dr. Andreas Fulda posted his reply to Björn Alpermann’s LinkedIn comment regarding "Chinese money at German universities" ( it might be useful to get a bit of context.

In November 2021 Andreas Fulda and David Missal were invited to a roundtable discussion on alleged pernicious influences by China in German universities and Chinese studies more generally at the annual ASC conference (Association for Social Science Research on China – a sub-division of the German Association of Asian Studies, DGA). In particular, we discussed the then-recently published article:
Andreas Fulda & David Missal (2021): Mitigating threats to academic freedom in Germany: the role of the state, universities, learned societies and China, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1989412

In this text the authors make far-reaching claims about how much German universities are, in their view, overly reliant on “questionable third party funding” including from Chinese sources. Inter alia, they write: “This [increasing reliance on industry and other third-party funding] is all the more a problem since by now one in four posts at German universities are funded by third parties.” (p.5).
Here, they mix up – whether deliberately or unintentionally – several unrelated things. Yes, there is a great number of research positions in German universities that are being paid for by third parties. Yet, the great majority of these are funded by public money – disbursed by DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and others. In fact, the share of industry / private funding for universities has declined over the recent past. In 2009 it stood at 22.9 percent, ten years later in 2019 at only 17.2 percent. Presenting all third-party funded research positions as instances of “questionable” financial influences greatly distorts the picture. However, this is a constant trait in Dr. Fulda’s argumentation: Presenting figures and claiming influence without delivering any empirical evidence for how such influence might have played out. We find this unconvincing.

Something else is wrong in this image: The authors claim: “Yet in the wake of the Bologna process German universities were subject to cost-cutting measures and increasingly fierce inter-university competition.” (p.5). While competition per se may not be such a bad thing, the authors do not get their facts straight. In the year 2000, when the Bologna process began, German HE institutions spent an accumulated 33.7 billion DM, in 2020 the figure was 32.7 billion EUR – nearly double the earlier figure given the difference in currencies! In the years 2010 to 2019 alone public funding for German HE climbed by 46.2 percent (BLK-Bildungsfinanzbericht 2000/2001, 83; Statistisches Bundesamt, Bildungsfinanzbericht 2020, 55). Of course, many academics in Germany are still complaining about lack of funds and losing out on lucrative funding (“Exzellenzinitiative”), and one may find a lot to criticize regarding these trends. But the sheer numbers do not bear out the bold – though unsubstantiated – portrayal of German HE being bled out financially.

A last example for where Andreas and David’s text does not stand up to scrutiny: In the section on “suspicious party-state funding” they write – again without providing anything in terms of reference or evidence: “Many degree programmes at German universities could not be offered without funding from PRC entities.” (p.8). We sincerely doubt that and would love to see evidence for this bold claim. None has been provided so far.

It was this article, along with a companion piece ( that stimulated us to respond in our FAZ op-ed “An argument against moral crusading” (English version: We think that when the political stakes are high, we need to be all the more accurate in adhering to academic standards in making arguments and presenting data to support them. Yet, Andreas Fulda et al. have not come up with any additional evidence to back up their claims but simply chose to ignore our criticism of their flawed argument. That’s why we have come to believe that Dr. Fulda et al. are on a mission to evoke the impression of problematic, if not unacceptable Chinese influence at German universities. Yet. everything they present does not stand the test of academic scrutiny.

In the debate now ensuing via the German daily FAZ and on social media this trend continues. In their reply in the pages of FAZ (English version posted in this thread earlier) they write:
“Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships. This thesis is based on more than a hundred requests to public authorities made by Missal under freedom of information laws, which can be viewed on the website There, it is documented that German universities receive several million euros from China every year without much effort, often several hundred thousand euros per university. Both the University of Würzburg and the University of Tübingen, where Alpermann and Schubert teach, have left the inquiries unanswered.”

Leaving aside for the moment, that the authors apparently try to suggest that we somehow colluded in masking the sinister financing of our institutions by Chinese sources (which is utter nonsense), the fact of the matter is that David Missal’s request was only answered in a substantial way by less than ten universities. By our count there are six universities listed on his website that did provide concrete data on Chinese financing, the majority of them either declined to answer outright or stated plainly that there was no Chinese financing at their institutions. While Fulda et al. point at “more than a hundred requests” their effective sample is much smaller. This is exactly the type of half-truths and suggestive language that is typical for Fulda’s writings in particular.

Finally, coming to the sums involved. David Missal’s research – expanded to include open-source information on university co-operations with China – shows that “at least 1.9 million Euro per year on average” can be documented to flow from China into German higher education. In Björn Alpermann’s LinkedIn post he pointed out that this is equivalent to 0.06 permille (!) of official budgetary outlays by German governments at all levels for the university sector. Even if we assumed – hypothetically – that there is an extraordinary amount of undocumented financing, let’s say equivalent to one hundred times the documented funds, then this would still amount to just 0.6 percent of German higher education funding. This leads us to conclude that Fulda et al.’s claim “Massive financial resources flow from the Chinese side to German cooperation partners via Confucius Institutes and university partnerships.” is unsubstantiated. There is nothing “massive” going on here. One may, of course, question the wisdom of some cooperative arrangements. But we need to keep a sense of the proportions of the problem at hand and not engage in fear-mongering.

We share Dr. Fulda’s request for more transparency of third party funding at German universities - not only with respect to China, by the way. However, this is rather a technical problem as we understand it. To insinuate, again without any evidence, that German universities would withhold those figures for avoiding to be exposed as politically leaning to China, is itself highly problematic.

Björn Alpermann
Gunter Schubert

Normative shackles?

In reaction to our article on March 16th (FAZ), Gunter Schubert (University of Tübingen) and Björn Alpermann (University of Würzburg) sent a letter to the editors. It was published under the title "Keine normativen Fesseln anlegen" (No normative shackles) on March 19th. (
This is a rather perplexing response to our own op-ed, in which we had argued for more transparency of funding from China and greater reflexivity of our research positionality in China studies. This methodological challenge, as we have shown, is *not* normative. Methods are analytical tools and never normative. Regardless both (fully tenured) professors claim that we somehow put "normative shackles" on them. This makes us wonder: Who do we shackle with a (self-)critical discussion on methods? How does our insistance on truth and the right to critique impact their ability to conduct China scholarship?

By now also other academics have joined the public debate about positionality and reflexivity in German China studies.
On 20 March 2022 Doris Fischer (University of Würzburg) wrote on Twitter: "Currently some scholars pursue a crusade against German social science research on China. I share the frustration of Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert in the face of this crusade and am grateful that they publicly defend our research."
Her choice of language is telling. She should know that the authors of our article in the FAZ are of course part of "German social science research on China" - - as she is. So what is happening here? A split-off of an academic discourse field is proposed (here: German social science research on China) in order to draw a line between the so-labeled "crusaders“ (read: China experts she disagrees with), and an imagined academic community ("our research") and their self-proclaimed defenders Gunter Schubert and Björn Alpermann.
On 21 March 2022 Thorsten Benner, co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin responded to Doris Fischer as follows:
"For tenured full professors of sinology in key positions to complain about supposed "crusade" waged by associate professor based in UK, think tank researcher in Berlin & NGO employee who crowd-funds his research is breath-taking exercise in self-victimization of the powerful."

More interesting links:

Handlungsempfehlungen der Deutschen Vereinigung für Chinastudien e. V. zum Umgang deutscher akademischer Institutionen mit der Volksrepublik China (Recommendations for Action by the German Association for Chinese Studies on the Interaction of German Academic Institutions with the People's Republic of China)

Andreas Fulda’s discussion on Germany Contentious China debate:
Fulda, A. (2022). The Chinese Communist Party’s Hybrid Interference and Germany’s Increasingly Contentious China Debate (2018-21). The Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, 2, 205–234.

Dear Sascha Klotzbücher,

did you even read beyond the headline of our letter to the editor? We wonder, since your H-Asia post is yet another example of quoting in a highly selective and thereby distorting manner. In our letter to the editor we explicitly write:

“Here, we reiterate that Fulda in particular argued repeatedly, both in writing and public speech for a state-led test of morality in German universities. If disciplining the Chinese studies field is being attempted, then it is by Fulda and his co-authors. It is a pity that the legitimate concern of these authors to stimulate the debate about theoretical and methodological self-reflection in German Chinese studies but also about potential financial dependencies on Chinese money is undermined by themselves with their problematic argumentation. It is not our aim to devalue a group of critical China scholars but to encourage them not to insulate their methods from scientific critique and to abandon their attempt to put normative shackles on open-ended empirical research on China.”
(„Hier nun wiederholen wir, dass etwa Fulda bereits mehrfach schriftlich und in öffentlicher Rede nach einem staatlichen Gesinnungsdurchgriff an den deutschen Universitäten verlangt hat. Wenn Disziplinierung der deutschen Chinaforschung versucht wird, dann von Fulda und seinen Mitstreitern. Es ist schade, dass das berechtigte Anliegen der Verfasser dieser Replik, die Debatte über theoretische und methodische Selbstreflexion in der deutschen Chinaforschung, aber auch mögliche Abhängigkeiten der deutschen Universitäten von chinesischem Geld, neu zu beleben, durch ihre problematische Argumentation von ihnen selbst untergraben wird. Es geht uns nicht darum, eine Gruppe kritischer Chinawissenschaftler abzuwerten, sondern sie zu ermuntern, sich nicht einer wissenschaftlichen Kritik ihrer Methoden zu entziehen und den Versuch aufzugeben, einer ergebnisoffenen, empirischen Chinaforschung normative Fesseln anzulegen.“)

Thus, it is not at all your demand for greater reflexivity on positionality that we take issue with. In fact, we take this debate very seriously and contribute to it on a regular basis (see for instance, Björn Alpermann’s recent keynote “Ethics in social science research on. China”; We even support your call for greater transparency on funding.
But we are concerned by the way you use unsubstantiated allegations to cast the whole field of Chinese studies in Germany under the doubt of leaning towards the PRC. For instance, in your FAZ article you write “It is surprising how many German China scholars in their selection of topics and methods do not question the official (Chinese) narrative.” (“Es ist schon erstaunlich, wie viele deutsche Chinawissenschaftler in Themenwahl und Methode das offizielle (chinesische) Narrativ nicht infrage stellen“). Frankly, we are surprised to see how little of the published scholarship by your own colleagues you seem to be aware of. And, by the way, this sentence of yours seems to imply that methods can be political after all – in contrast to what you write in your post.
More to the point, with statements such as these, it is little wonder that others see this as an attack on the whole profession of those who conduct social science research on China in Germany. They are not “self-victimizing” – they are just not taking your unfounded attacks lying down.

Björn Alpermann
Gunter Schubert

Dear Sascha Klotzbücher,

in further addressing your post from March 27th, we want to point out that we have never written to defend social science research on China against “crusaders”. What we have simply done was highlighting the fact that a number of China scholars, but also uninformed journalists and politicians, brush over or distort empirical facts on China’s impact on German universities with the self-proclaimed mission of rising awareness against that impact. We think that such a way of framing and pushing a debate is untenable and deserves the denotation “crusaderism”. This is quite a difference!

What we think is utterly unhelpful in this debate is the effort to shift it to another terrain – maybe after understanding that distorting fact does not help the mission too much – and attacking the “tenured mighty” (our choice of words), insinuating that there are “precariously employed” but upright China scholars who are victimized by the powerful (and corrupted) in academia. We have just pointed at facts and asked you to stick to facts as well, and not to suggestive and moralistic language to push your message. To call this an “breath-taking exercise in self-vicitimization” is breath-taking itself. We ask you to calm down and not make this a Robin Hood campaign which serves nobody, and certainly not your intention to raise awareness of potentially improper Chinese influence at German universities. We reiterate that we, as much as most China scholars across the globe, are aware of the China challenge and the necessity to respond to it. But what we least need in this debate is an anti-Chinese narrative backed up by flawed empirical evidence, fear-mongering and a moralistic undertone.

Gunter Schubert
Björn Alpermann

If the participants in this debate insist on perpetuating it on H-ASIA, perhaps they could be persuaded to continue in German? Perhaps then I might understand what they are saying. As it stands, the back-and-forth, with barrages of quotations taken out of context and increasingly uncivil personal attacks, is incomprehensible to outsiders. The rhetoric is regrettable, because the issues seem important, but they are being obscured by an impenetrable fog of invective. This is no way to conduct an academic debate.

Paul R. Goldin
University of Pennsylvania

Dear Professor Goldin,

I wholeheartedly agree with you that the topic of the Chinese Communist Party's autocratic power, researcher positionality, and academic freedom is of key importance. It deserves to be discussed critically, constructively, and with civility. Here in the UK I have learned that one can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

In a forthcoming publication - which should be published before the end of this week - I will explain what the various points of contention are, understood as opposite poles on a continuum. I am convinced that this way the debate will actually calm down and become more intelligible, both to the German as well as to the international audience.

Once the article is out I am happy to post a link to it here.

With best regards,

Andreas Fulda
University of Nottingham

My commentary "Researching China: How Germany tackles the issues" has just been published on the blog of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

It can be accessed here:

What follows is a short summary.

In Germany a public debate about the current state of China studies has erupted.

Rivalling op-eds appeared in Germany's flagship centrist newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Alpermann and Schubert argued that 'tactical compromises' were necessary to conduct field research in China (F.A.Z., 9 March).

Fulda, Ohlberg, Missal, Fabian and Klotzbuecher responded that China-related knowledge production should not be subject to censorship and self-censorship (F.A.Z., 16 March).

At the heart of the debate are the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) autocratic power, researcher positionality, and academic freedom.

In the field of China studies at least twelve points of contention can be identified.

They are not static but can be understood as opposite poles on a continuum.

Points of contention relate to

(1) attitudes
(2) political and emotional dimensions, and
(3) academic cooperation with China.

More specifically, they relate to

- Academic freedom
- Access
- Self-censorship
- Relevance
- Values
- History
- Judgment
- Entanglement
- Geopolitics
- Funding
- Due diligence
- Dual use

Discourse participants assess these twelve points of contention differently and mixed results are likely.

Resulting disagreements are not new.

In recent years the Sinology debate has taken place via numerous outlets (e.g. LibMod, APuZ, China.Table, and F.A.Z).

Accompanying online commentary has fragmented along different platforms (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter, Research Gate, and H-Asia).

To date no attempts have been undertaken to bring all strands together and provide an overview.

The HEPI blog was written in the spirit of enhancing discourse participants' reflexivity in the ongoing debate about positionality in China studies.

My commentary seeks to make the current debate about China studies more intelligible, both to the German as well as to the international audience.

Thank you for bringing some order and clarity to the debate.

To anyone who is interested: This is the orginal version of my comment to the debate which was published in a shortened version by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.) on 30 March 2022 („Kritik und Kompromiss“,, together with an English translation. Björn Alpermann has responded that it would not have been possible for him to write his book on Xinjiang without quite a number cautious empirical studies in China, and gives to consider that „mimicry“ might be inevitable to escape censorship.

Die Sinologie gehört zu den wenig beneidenswerten Disziplinen, die im Schatten einer Diktatur arbeiten müssen. Dies nötigt das Fach immer wieder dazu, sich mit einer Macht zu arrangieren, der die Freiheit und damit das Lebenselixier der Wissenschaft suspekt ist. Mehr noch: einer Macht, die zudem bestrebt ist, in das Territorium der Sinologie, das sie für ihr Hoheitsgebiet hält, hineinzuregieren und eine politische Deutungshoheit zu etablieren. Hierzu gehören Versuche der Einflussnahme auf die Angebote ausländischer Universitäten, auch der deutschen, wobei man darüber streiten kann, wie weit die Bemühungen gediehen sind; jedenfalls sind sie nicht zu übersehen, und man tut gut daran, sie im Auge zu behalten. Weit größere organisatorische Möglichkeiten hat China naturgemäß zur Kontrolle ausländischer Forschung und anderer akademischer Tätigkeiten im Land selbst. Weil das Regime sich zu seiner Legitimation auf die Einzigartigkeit der chinesischen Kultur beruft, betrifft dies grundsätzlich alle geisteswissenschaftlichen Themengebiete; vor allem aber gilt es für die politik- und sozialwissenschaftliche Feldforschung. Wie lässt sich unter diesen Umständen der für die Sinologie unerlässliche Kontakt zu China und seinen Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftlern, die selbst drangsaliert werden, gestalten?
Nun tun sich manche Teile der Sinologie, namentlich die „China-Versteher“, schwer damit, in der chinesischen Politik überhaupt ein gravierendes Problem zu erkennen. Gleichwohl musste sich angesichts der beschriebenen Lage im Fach früher oder später eine Debatte über das Verhältnis von Wissenschaft und Moral entzünden, die mit den jüngsten Beiträgen in der F.A.Z. mit Bezug auf die Frage legitimer Forschung in eine neue Runde gegangen ist. China, so scheint es, ist dabei, ein Problem in Erinnerung zu bringen, das die immer mehr ökonomischen Zwängen unterliegenden Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften im Namen von Wertfreiheitspostulat und Kulturrelativismus allzu sehr verdrängt haben.
In der in diesem Sinne beispielhaften Debatte knüpft die eine Seite (A. Fulda, M. Ohlberg, D. Missal, H. Fabian, S. Klotzbücher) an genau solche Überlegungen an und vertritt mit Nachdruck einen Primat der Kritik, der die Absage an unfreie, sich politischen Vorgaben beugende Forschung impliziert. Die andere Seite (B. Alpermann, G. Schubert) formuliert einen Primat der Forschung, die nicht durch den „normativen Purismus“ „moralisierender Kreuzritter“ behindert werden dürfe. Wissensbeschaffung, so heißt es, zu der es schließlich einen öffentlichen Auftrag gebe, sei von der „normativen Ebene“ zu trennen. Wie aber, so wenden die Kritiker zu Recht ein, soll die Forschung das versprochene und angeblich nicht anders zu beschaffende „empirisch gesicherte Wissen“ erbringen, wenn sie unter der Ägide der KP Chinas und deren eigener normativer Agenda zu erfolgen hat? Forschung zu behindern muss man in der Tat nicht ausgerechnet den Kritikern vorwerfen – das besorgt schon China selbst. Die „Forscher“ indes meinen, durch „taktische Kompromisse“ und „Mimikry“ die chinesische Seite austricksen zu können. Es liegt wohl in der Natur der Sache, wenn nicht benannt wird, wie solche „Kompromisse“ aussehen. Allerdings muss man sich doch fragen lassen, welches Verständnis von Wissenschaft eigentlich im Spiel ist, wenn man meint, sie mit dem Ethos eines Geheimdienstes betreiben zu können. Sicherlich trägt die Verantwortung für die prekäre Situation das unfreie chinesische System. Hat es nicht aber schon gewonnen, wenn man beginnt, im Namen eines vermeintlichen kategorischen Forschungsimperativs Grundsätze für es zu strapazieren? Und sollte man sich seiner Kontrolle nicht auch anders entziehen können als durch Täuschung – nämlich durch eine Forschung, die sich ihr erst gar nicht unterwirft? Und ist nicht, so fragt sich der irritierte Leser weiter, gerade Björn Alpermanns bemerkenswertes, überaus kritisches Buch über Xinjiang dafür ein Beleg?

Sinology is one of those unenviable disciplines that have to work in the shadow of a dictatorship. This repeatedly forces it to come to terms with a power that is suspicious of freedom and thus the lifeblood of science. What's more: a power that is also striving to encroach on the territory of sinology, which it considers its own territory, and to establish a political sovereignty of interpretation. This includes attempts to influence the offerings of foreign universities, including the German ones, although it is debatable how far the efforts have progressed. In any case, they cannot be overlooked and one would do well to keep an eye on them.
Naturally, China has far greater organizational possibilities for controlling foreign research and other academic activities in the country itself. Because the regime invokes the uniqueness of Chinese culture for its legitimation, this basically applies to all humanities topics. Above all, however, it applies to field research in the political and social sciences.
Under these circumstances, how can the contact with China and its scientists, who are themselves being harassed, be organized, given the fact that it is indispensable for Sinology? Now some parts of Sinology, namely the so-called "understanders of China", find it difficult to recognize a serious problem in Chinese politics at all. Nevertheless, in view of the situation described above, sooner or later a debate had to ignite in the discipline about the relationship between science and morality. With the most recent articles in the F.A.Z. it has entered a new round with reference to the question of legitimate research.
China, it seems, is bringing to mind a problem that the humanities and social sciences, increasingly subject to economic constraints, have too much repressed in the name of value-freedom postulates and cultural relativism.
In the debate, which is exemplary in this sense, one side (A. Fulda, M. Ohlberg, D. Missal, H. Fabian, S. Klotzbücher) takes up exactly such considerations and emphatically advocates a primacy of criticism that rejects research that is not free and bows to political dictates.
The other side (B. Alpermann, G. Schubert) formulates a primacy of research that must not be hindered by the "normative purism" of "moralizing crusaders". The acquisition of knowledge, it is said, for which there is ultimately a public mandate, should be separated from the "normative level". But how, the critics rightly object, is research supposed to produce the promised “empirically proven knowledge” that supposedly cannot be obtained in any other way, if it has to be conducted under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party and its own normative agenda? In fact, of all people it is not the critics who should be blamed for obstructing research – China is already doing that itself.
However, the "researchers" think they can outsmart the Chinese side through "tactical compromises" and "mimicry". It is probably in the nature of things if it is not specified what such “compromises” look like. However, one has to ask oneself what understanding of science is actually involved if one thinks one can pursue it with the ethos of a secret service. Certainly, the responsibility for the precarious situation lies with the unfree Chinese system. But hasn't it already won if one begins to strain principles for it in the name of a supposedly categorical research imperative? And shouldn't it be possible to evade its control in another way than through deception - namely through research that does not submit to it in the first place? And isn't, the irritated reader wonders further, Björn Alpermann's remarkable, exceedingly critical book on Xinjiang proof of this?"

Heiner Roetz

In his measured post, Heiner Roetz wrote "However, the 'researchers' think they can outsmart the Chinese side through 'tactical compromises' and 'mimicry'. It is probably in the nature of things if it is not specified what such 'compromises' look like."
I repeatedly responded to such criticism that we do, of course, discuss the conditions of our fieldwork in China, including necessary compromises, in our published work. Here is my essay, just published in the 'Made in China Journal', which does just that, for anyone who is interested in a proper debate:

Research ethics is an underdiscussed topic in Chinese studies that has only recently attracted more attention due to increasing geopolitical tensions and the concomitant anxieties about China’s shifting global role. In this essay, I aim to reflect on often-overlooked aspects of research ethics in the study of contemporary China and consider the implications for the field going forward. My comments proceed in three steps, discussing professional, personal, and political ethics. This is a simple heuristic distinction and does not define clearly separated fields as, in practice, these dimensions overlap and interact in complex ways. Thus, my main argument is that, as with many other questions of empirical research, when considering research ethics, we are presented with trade-offs and must make difficult choices, often representing outcomes that are far from ideal.