European researchers in Chinese academia before and after the pandemic

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Below is a summary of a thought-provoking conversation from the panel on the topic ‘European researchers in Chinese academia before and after COVID-19’, which took place on 1 September 2021 as part of a session on promoting closer relations and scholarly dialogue between European and Asian higher education researchers during the 33rd annual Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) conference.

The three panellists included Halldor Berg from EURAXESS China, Mikkel Ronnow Mouritzen from Roskilde University, Denmark, and Andrea Braun Střelcová from Max Planck Institute in Berlin, who also moderated the panel.

Are you still there?

ABS: Halldór, thank you for joining us from Beijing! Can you introduce yourself, your work and your research?

HB: We in EURAXESS connect researchers across the world with the European Research Area. In China, we animate a network of researchers to connect the two worlds. We work with Chinese researchers who have ties to Europe, and we also work with European researchers in China. As a result, I engage a lot with the European research community in China. These days, more Europeans are coming for many different reasons, which is also why we are interested. We want to know the status of the group and how to help.

Since 2019, we have done three studies. In the first one, we identified the main challenges facing European researchers in China. It was a mix of closed and open-ended questions, based on which we organised the Forum for European Researchers in China. The second survey was carried out at the beginning of 2020. The onset of the Covid outbreak happened a little earlier in China than in other parts of the world, so mobility was impacted very early. We reacted by surveying the whole population in February 2020 and found [that] huge disruptions had happened before the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe. By August 2020, it was clear that Covid-19 was a global pandemic, so we worked together with Mikkel on a follow-up survey to get a clearer idea of the consequences. So, we have information on right before Covid, during Covid, and after the Covid pandemic.

ABS: Mikkel, how about yourself? Does your research show how many European academics were and are active in China today, and what are their challenges?

MRM: The number is difficult to estimate, and nobody really knows. There are probably 800-1000 people. The survey, distributed via EURAXESS, had 105 respondents in 2019 and 99 in 2020, although, of course, not all Europeans are active in the EURAXESS network.

My PhD title, ‘Are you still there? A study on European researchers in China’ refers to whether or not Europeans who move to China actually stay there. Two-thirds of the population left China as a result of Covid-19 and were not allowed to go back after the borders closed in March 2020. Around 50% have been able to return with extensive quarantines and ongoing difficulties to travel.

The second theme to which the title alludes is methodological. Not being able to travel to China made my research more difficult. A respondent [asked] “Are you still there?” in our Skype conversation, which speaks to the cross-border dialogue which can and cannot go on online. Some elements of a conversation have been lost, which affects how we carry out research across Europe and China. We may have to wait, perhaps for a decade or more, to be able to [fully] examine the effects.

The main bottlenecks before COVID-19

ABS: Under the current circumstances, what are the main bottlenecks regarding this group of migrants, beyond Covid-19?

HB: In our 2019 survey, we found six main challenges; the biggest one was non-effective integration in their institution. This is worth studying more, as it alludes to the China-specific context and how it compares to expat researchers or academic migrants in other countries – it is difficult to integrate in any foreign culture. The second challenge was a burdensome immigration regime, as the infrastructure is still under development. Third frustration was funding opportunities – foreigners do not get information about funding and they are subjected to stiff selection that often automatically excludes them. Another one was the language problem. Even if they spoke everyday Chinese, they couldn’t write research proposals in Chinese, and they couldn’t submit them in English either. The last one was the China-specific issue of access to data and other information. We discussed these issues extensively in the Forum of European Researchers in 2019, to see what can be done.

Besides the challenges, it is worthwhile talking about the benefits, which is why the researchers came to China in the first place. There are many good reasons for people to come, many of which did not exist ten years ago. Back then, most of those who came were interested in China or had personal relationships there. This is not the case anymore. Now people come because of the science, facilities, or other opportunities in China that they are not getting elsewhere. I invite you to watch our videocasts online where we just had a live interview with two researchers from Poland and from France – both were glowing [reviews]. One of them, a professor at a research hospital in Xi’an, said she came to China as a tourist and was so impressed that she started applying for jobs. This story hardly existed ten years ago, especially in cities such as Xi’an.

Why COVID-19 challenged everything

ABS: The pandemic caused significant interruption. To what extent have Chinese institutions been accommodating the situation?

MRM: If you start with the pre-pandemic situation, there were solid opportunities particularly in STEM, medicine, and biology. China is the second-largest spender in R&D, after the US. Talent attraction, including foreign talent, is strongly featured in the 13th and 14th five-year plans, so there is a commitment to the idea of a specialised labour force. However, the conditions seem to be determined by relationships with superiors and other relational barriers. You can use ‘guanxi’ or some other concepts to explain it. In any case, some institutions are headed by returnees with extensive international experience who are very good managers. In my interviews I heard it often, “He is a great guy, I came to work with him.”

[The] embodiment of being an outsider, a foreigner, is something a European must get used to. This is determined by the amount of English that is spoken and whether you participate in the scientific discussion. This is a common bottleneck.

The second thing that stood out, especially post-covid, boiled down to the basics. Why does an institution actually want to attract foreigners to China? One thing that kept coming up is that they are bridge-makers. The purpose of the people seems not necessarily to integrate, because the outsider status connects them professionally to other institutions. This social function went as a red thread throughout my interviews. They can travel a lot, the number of countries you can travel to with ease is larger for many European passports.

The importance of cross-border mobility was key, which is why Covid-19 challenged everything. No matter how happy researchers are in China – most respondents were very happy and busy – and even though there were no strict lockdowns, they still couldn’t visit their family back home. There is a high risk of a new lockdown, reduced access to infrastructure, high flight prices, and three weeks of quarantine imposed upon arrival back in China. This is a big price to pay for visiting your family. You cannot have a transnational family – ageing parents, a partner, or kids abroad – and a three-week long quarantine! The implications of this go far beyond my research. We will have scholarship on the fragility of the transnational talents, and their lives, for years to come.

ABS: It seems that the respondents were in a constant negotiation process, internally and externally. My own research showed that some are keen on the outsider status – they could travel more easily, they didn’t have to go through the administrative burden, they had assistants who helped out. It freed up mental space to focus on research. However, it also put them socially in a half-way position which accumulated and made them, in the personal sense, reconsider. China would become a stopover, not a permanent destination.

HB: When we talk about the challenges before Covid-19, some of the questions were always, how ‘China-specific’ were they? Well, Covid-19 gave some answers. From our survey, we saw that people perceived that lack of integration was the biggest challenge … Covid-19 has now made it clear that the resident status of European researchers in China is just not equivalent to their Chinese colleagues in Europe. It doesn’t matter how long you had lived in China; you were not allowed to return. Europe also closed the borders in 2020, but everybody with a residency permit was allowed to return home. This wasn’t the case with foreigners in China.

The second thing that crystallised was that connections matter. It didn’t matter how good your contract was, you were not allowed to return. For people who did manage it was because somebody in your institution was willing to fight for you. But if you were an orphan in the system, you were out of luck. The lesson is to make sure that you are cultivating relationships.

The third point was how fickle the policy towards ‘talent’ is. The Chinese government has a strong push to attract foreign talent as long as it doesn’t go against other political objectives. This threw years of work for many people to attract high-level foreign talent out of the window.

ABS: China is not the only country to be extremely strict in quarantines, but the uniqueness of the Chinese approach to immigrant policy is evident. It is relevant to think about the implications on how it is going to affect the pipeline of researchers and foreign students.

MRM: It will affect the Sino-EU relationship in higher education. For example, the double-degree programmes, such as mine, have been responsible [for] bringing many foreign students to China. Those programmes just went online which makes them no longer as attractive. Their unique selling point was ‘going to China’. From a European perspective, a degree from a Chinese university done online is just not worth the same. So, the pipeline will be affected. The talent status of students was very low even before the pandemic. Again, we will have to wait – this is a topic almost ripe for future research.

Final thoughts

ABS: You highlighted some challenges that come up specifically in China-EU mobility and migration, and the overall conditions. Do you have any final thoughts?

MRM: The positive sides lie in the opportunities for research collaboration with China, particularly in STEM and life sciences. Scientific collaboration cannot end, although it has taken a significant hit. To re-establish, networks and trust will be necessary for transnational lives, and lifestyles. I hope, going back to the challenges, that conditions for social sciences and humanities may also improve.

HB: The atmosphere towards Sino-European science has been going through a shift. The people who arrived eight years ago [did so] in a different context than people today. Now people are coming because China is an exciting place to do science – and this will continue. One positive outcome for EURAXESS was the emergence of thematic diaspora networks, besides the national ones. We just saw the establishment of a Biology and Medicine Network with over 50 members. To work effectively in China, it is important to appreciate the value of connection. The next step is for the networks to connect further with Europe and China.

The pandemic showed how important European researchers in China are, they keep on going with their research in China and connect China and Europe in the same way Chinese [researchers] in Europe connect us. If somebody thought we were moving past physical mobility, it turned out to be the opposite. It only showed just how important mobility is.