China studies in crisis: Time for change

May 3, 2024
Concept on Chinese flag and skyline background. Multiexposure

At a time when China is becoming increasingly more important to the Australian economy as well as to our stability and security in the Asia-Pacific, the overall decline in Australia’s China knowledge capability runs counter to our national sovereign interests.

The opportunity to congratulate Colin Mackerras on his six-decade long involvement with China is bitter-sweet. Certainly his contribution to the development of China Studies in Australia has been considerable. After a pre-Cultural Revolution teaching stint in Beijing he has been a significant bridge between Australian and Chinese higher education. His enthusiasm for things Chinese is well-known, and he is one of those whose development of China Studies in Australia (as well as the encouragement of many others) made it a world-leading location of research and teaching on China outside the People’s Republic of China itself during the 1980s and 1990s.

Mackerras’s own research focus on society and culture, in particular theatre, drama and the performing arts, presented and still presents useful alternatives to the focus on questions of national security and regional strategy, both in higher education and elsewhere in society. Regardless of how one assesses the potential configurations and impact of the ‘China Threat’ to Australia there remains a need to know about China and its society. Most simply, China is Australia’s largest trade partner (in both directions) and one of its largest source countries for migrants. Of even greater importance though in trying to understand and explain our changing world and its individual human and social dimensions the Chinese experience represents a sizeable proportion that must be incorporated.

That aspect of Mackerras’s contribution to China Studies is though now significantly threatened. At Griffith University, from the mid-1970s on he and others pioneered the Area Studies approach to education and research about China. China, the Chinese and Chinese culture are to be understood and examined in both their wider regional and intellectual contexts. This requires a high degree of specialisation: not only the study of the Chinese language, but its combination with other disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. China-related knowledge has certainly expanded across the range of university disciplines notably Architecture, Business, Engineering, Law, and Science. At the same time the last decade has seen a substantial retreat from specialisation in China Studies and from the Area Studies approach to knowledge production.

The retreat from specialisation in China Studies has been the subject of a number of reports in the last few years, most notably Chinese Studies in Australian Universities: A Problem of Balance from the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) in 2020 and Australia’s China Knowledge Capability from the Australian Academy of Humanities (AAH) in 2023. These reports have highlighted the disappearance of advanced education about China into a future where there will be an Australian need for broader and deeper China expertise. China Studies student numbers have held up well in the last decade but the numbers of domestic students in honours programs, higher and research degree programs are now few and far between. Alarmingly, there are currently no high-level advanced Chinese language programs anymore in any Australian university.

One clear reason for this change is that the trend in higher education curriculum development has moved against specialisation. Students are now required to take options and programs in addition to their major which are also a much smaller component of their degree. There may be sound educational reasons for a general education at the undergraduate level, but the consequence is severe for China Studies as with other majors in area studies. Intensive knowledge of the language is necessary alongside understanding of society and culture (including politics, philosophy and the relevant economy) without which a program of study becomes either devalued in content or impossible.

Remarkably, student numbers in China Studies have not declined but the explanation as the ASAA Report highlights is that many universities have come to adopt what appears to be an over-reliance on international student enrolments, particularly from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The financial benefit to a university is obvious in the absence of government support, especially for research. Not unnaturally those students drift to classes about China, but one crucial difference between them and domestic students is their level of knowledge of the Chinese language, so demand is not created for advanced Chinese language training. On the other hand, demand amongst those students for postgraduate doctoral study is high. Combined with the inability of domestic undergraduates to specialise in China Studies this international student demand means that most China Studies doctoral programs have few, if any, domestic students. The PRC students are not to blame for this strategic failure but it certainly emphasises the weakening of Australia’s future China knowledge capability.

In research the crisis in the production of core China research, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences was clearly reported by the AAH Report last year. That report highlighted the funding decline in number of projects and funds provided through the Australian Research Council (ARC) steadily for the past 12 years, and in 2023 nothing was funded despite applications. Over that same period there has also been no support of China-related research at scale, such as through the funding of Centres of Excellence that could support a multidisciplinary program of strategic, sovereign research capacity on China.

There may be many reasons for the decline in research support, but one obvious concern is the management of an Area Studies approach, combining disciplinary and China knowledge. The absence of China knowledge in the ARC College of Experts means that applications to the ARC’s Humanities and Social Sciences panels risk being assessed only in disciplinary frames and debates. The innovative aspects of their contents related to China are potentially overlooked in a largely Euro-American centred research culture. The benefits that accrue to the Australian nation from in-depth knowledge about China are lost in the process.

All Area Studies fields experience these problems but in the case of Asian Studies and China Studies there are additional difficulties that arise from the historical weight of the UK, Europe and USA in our university systems. There are solutions at hand. In some parts of the world (notably USA, UK) funding for Area Studies, particularly for research, is now provided separately from and alongside the major disciplinary areas. In Australia, during the late 1980s Federal Government established the Asian Studies Council to promote studies of and education about the countries of the Asia Pacific. In the 1990s the ARC convened a discrete Asian Studies panel to promote research on the region to good effect. Australia produced outstanding China scholarship that gained global recognition. Later the ARC still continued to support research on the Asia-Pacific region for a while by ensuring that both the Humanities and Social Science panels had at least one Asia-Pacific expert each among their membership.

The problem with the overall decline in Australia’s China knowledge capability is that it runs counter to our national sovereign interests at a time when China is becoming increasingly more important to the Australian economy as well as to our stability and security in the Asia-Pacific. While individual universities may decide to maintain China Studies
as a strategic good, ultimately that initiative rests with Federal Government and its agencies.

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