Xi Closes the Door for the Next Generation of Analysts
A rural school shuttered, study program gone, and research and job opportunities too politically taboo today — they all point to the withering hopes of experiencing China under Xi.
Over the weekend, Antony Blinken visited China — the first visit by the US Secretary of State since 2018 and by a Cabinet-level official since 2019. In the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout of Blinken’s talks with Qin Gang, it states in part,
Both sides agreed to encourage the expansion of cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries, actively discuss increasing passenger flights between China and the United States, welcome more students, scholars, and business people to visit each other’s countries — and offer support and convenience in order to do so.
Today for ChinaTalk, MERICS analyst Jacob Gunter reflects on his path. Qin Gang’s readout notwithstanding, things look very different on the ground for today’s aspiring China watchers — and as Gunter illustrates, they don’t seem likely to change under Xi.
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Like many China watchers, there was no single moment when I decided to make China the center of my career. My China path — from arbitrarily selecting Mandarin as my minor to my current role as a senior analyst of China’s political economy at MERICS — was shaped by dozens of experiences and decisions in between. (How many of us remember answering relatives who asked how much longer we would stay in China with, “Probably just another year or so.” I said that for ten years.)
Tragically, however, the channels my generation of China watchers enjoyed in discovering our careers has been systematically blocked. Looking back at my own path, it is hard to imagine replicating it if I had started in 2023: each key step has since been made impossible, harder, or less rewarding.
Inevitably, future cohorts of China watchers, particularly those with deep experience in the PRC, will be much smaller. Xi Jinping and his cadres may well desire such an outcome — but anyone who values strong people-to-people ties as a critical ballast in the US-China relationship should worry about the implications of this trend.
Channel #1: Studying in Shanghai — in a program that no longer exists
In 2008, I began an international business degree which required at least two years of language study. The abundance of Chinese-speaking international students lent itself to learning the language: I studied it in class, practiced with my Chinese classmates, and made good friends along the way. Then in 2010, I enrolled in a language immersion program at Fudan University.
Those years were the “Golden Age” for US students studying in China; today may as well be called the “Dark Ages.” As US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns remarked, “Students are part of the ballast of this relationship. As recently as ten years ago, there were 14,000 to 15,000 American students in China on an annual basis. There are now only about 350 American students in China.” Indeed, the Fudan study abroad program I experienced is no longer active in China. Neither are many others.
Anecdotally, while living in Beijing for the first year and a half of the pandemic, I knew several foreigners that led such programs: they universally either shut down entirely or went on hiatus.
I was nineteen years old when I chose to study at Fudan. And although I was moving to the other side of the world and encountering a new culture and language, the gravity of the move was made lighter just knowing that there were also going to be many people in the same boat. Today, with fewer options and a smaller cohort of fellow students, perhaps I would have opted for Taiwan, or not gone abroad at all.
My semester in Shanghai also led me to a mid-term objective: after a long weekend trip to Nanjing — which included a visit to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center — I immediately knew what my next stop needed to be. Admission to the Center, though, demanded a high level of Mandarin fluency I knew would elude my grasp unless I could live in China for a few years.
Channel #2: Teaching English as a means of learning Mandarin — at a school that has since been shuttered
As such, after graduating in 2012, I applied for jobs teaching English in rural China. I accepted an offer and worked for three years in Yuyao 余姚, a small city in northern Zhejiang Province.
Yuyao became my personal Chinese hometown. Many of my closest friends live there, and even after I moved away from Yuyao, I still received invitations from many of them to visit their countryside homes to celebrate big festivals. My time in Yuyao brought my Mandarin up to what I needed — but it also left deep and personal impressions on me of Chinese culture, community, and society.
This channel to entering China — learning the language and surrounding myself with a small city’s culture — would be impossible in 2023. When the government in 2021 outlawed private tutoring of core curricula subjects, English training schools found themselves in a legal gray area. My old colleagues informed me that the local interpretation of those new rules led to the school’s closing down, just to be on the safe side.
Channel #3: A master’s thesis — that would have been impossible to write today
In 2015, I started a two-year master’s program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, which is a relatively small joint program between Johns Hopkins SAIS and Nanjing University. There, Chinese students study with international professors in English, and international students study with Chinese professors in Mandarin.
Between classes and writing my thesis, I achieved yet better Mandarin abilities, as well as a deeper understanding of China’s social, political, economic, and historical foundations. Like in Yuyao, I count among my classmates from those two years some of my best friends. Further, many of us, both international and Chinese students, became dedicated to career paths to try to manage what we could all see was going to be a deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington.
The Center is still alive, albeit during the pandemic most international students were unable to get into China; I’ve heard that most classes were done online — far from ideal, when the language and community are the two most valuable takeaways from the program.
But even if the Center returns to normalcy this fall, I cannot imagine that the thesis I wrote then would have passed muster in 2023. I conducted a comparative analysis of the regulatory systems for Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. My professors advised me to choose a benign name and write an absurdly vague abstract — all in the name of “staying below the radar.”
Considering what Xi has done in terms of cracking down on and coopting religions in China, I would have faced sterner warnings from professors, and there is no way I could have ethically conducted, for example, interviews with religious adherents for my research.
Channel #4: Daring to be critical of policy on behalf of foreign companies in China
While studying in Nanjing, I took up an internship at the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. That internship eventually led to a job in Beijing, working on researching and drafting publications, handling high-level media, and disseminating messages to Chines- and foreign-government stakeholders.
Our reports included controversial topics like SOE reform, unfair treatment of foreign companies, zero-covid, decoupling, the BRI, US-China trade and tech wars, and more. Much of my work involved speaking with companies anonymously and engaging directly with Chinese government officials.
I wonder how my work would have been impacted if I had to do it under the shadow of China’s recent amendments to its Anti-Espionage Law. The new text broadens the definition of the scope of espionage from text limited to state secrets and intelligence to things “affecting China’s national security and national interests” — terms which, given Xi’s obsession with national security, could mean anything. While most of the work that I did probably would have fallen below these arbitrary thresholds, the itch in the back of my mind telling me to mind my tone — and maybe to even hold my tongue — would have been pervasive.
We often ask what Trump or Biden have done — but too rarely ask what Xi has done
To be sure, the US has done its fair share to make people-to-people ties harder: Trump’s expulsion of a large share of Chinese journalists (and Xi’s tit-for-tat response) and the excesses of the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, among others, have narrowed the channels for Chinese nationals to study and work in the US. All Americans should consider what we have done to hurt people-to-people ties and what we could do to rebuild them.
But Xi and his cadres should be held to the same standard. True, Xi may well wish for fewer qualified China watchers. Perhaps he believes that, given a dearth of civilian China watchers, only official channels and narratives propagated by Beijing will remain. Yet if Xi insists on adopting a perspective in which everything is a national security risk — and that it is better not to have Americans researching and understanding China on the ground — then I fear he is making a grave error that could generate dangerous miscalculations.
It’s not as if Americans who are interested in China will ignore it or subscribe to the Global Times. Instead, they too will view China through a purely national security lens, and from a distance in which they must attempt to interpret (without much knowledge of the on-the-ground context) the limited signals coming from Beijing — much as Americans did with the Soviets and Mao’s China during the Cold War through the application of “Kremlinology” and “Pekingology.”
As Scott Kennedy at CSIS put it in his analysis of the Chinese-Canadian showdown over Meng Wanzhou and the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor:
Although some Chinese officials may believe the country is safer without pesky foreign experts digging into the country’s affairs, their diluted presence is leading to greater Western hostility against China, as there is less ability for scholars to understand and explain China’s complex reality to the rest of the world.
So, Xi can squeeze the few channels left and thus produce future generations of dispassionate cold warriors with only a textbook understanding of Chinese people, culture, history, politics, and society. Or, he can expand communication channels and produce a generation with a deep and personal connection to Chinese people, culture, history, politics, and society. Much of it is up to Xi.