China in the Global Academic Landscapes

Herrenhausen Castle/ December 10-12, 2014

Conference Report



The event “China in the Global Academic Landscapes” actually consisted of three separate parts. The main conference was preceded by a separate workshop of twelve international young scholars from a variety of countries who had been invited to Hanover. The main conference dealt with the academic implications of the growing global significance of China in general and its university sector in particular. Among other subjects, it discussed the massive transformations of China’s research and tertiary education sectors, as well as their international entanglements. Yet the conference did not solely deal with academic structures and policies: rather, it also paid due attention to important epistemological challenges and changes. For instance, focusing on the social sciences and humanities, the participants debated whether the current transformations in the global academic landscapes (and their underlying sociologies of knowledge) will also have an impact on the future directions that research might take in single fields. Immediately following the end of the main conference, there was a meeting of leading representatives of German academic foundations as well as the Federal Ministry of Education.



The tripartite event held in December 2015 followed a workshop dealing with “China in the German Academic Landscapes”, most notably the humanities and social sciences in this country. This workshop also took place in Herrenhausen castle, in October 2013 and here the invited group of scholars (representing different academic fields and institutions) critically assessed the status quo of China-related research and teaching in Germany. During this workshop, it became clear that the German academic situation can impossible be discussed while ignoring developments in other countries. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the latter are closely connected with research elsewhere, forming transnational professional fields. An issue of great concern, which emerged from these deliberations during the first Herrenhausen workshop, was the shifting scales of global influence and their implications for academic systems such as the German one.

In 2015, additional funding provided by the Volkswagen Foundation put the organizers of this conference into the position to issue an international call for applications which was specifically targeted to “young scholars,” defined as early career academics, ranging from advanced doctoral students to assistant professors. It was possible to invite a group of young scholars from various countries, ranging from Canada to Bangladesh to audit the main conference and participate in the general discussions. In addition, each of the young scholars got the chance to present his or her own research in a poster session during the main conference.

Each member of the young scholar group was working primarily on China-related themes while at the same time representing different disciplinary approaches.  At the same time, all of the invited young scholars had already personal experiences with two or more academic systems in different parts of the world. In their separate workshop, which was held immediately preceding the main conference the group had its own discussion on the present international condition and future trajectories of China-related academic work. The young scholars group formulated some points and questions which were then picked up during the final panel.


Conference Report

This topic was being further pursued during the December 2015 conference, which was entitled China in the Global Academic Landscapes.” The event convened renowned researchers, academic policy-makers and university administrators from Europe, East Asia and North America. The participants included such renowned scholars as Wang Hui (Tsinghua University), Lydia Liu (Columbia University), or Prasenjit Duara (National University Singapore) – for short biographies of the active conference participants see Appendices 2&3. As a first main subject, the conference dealt with the changing place of China within other academic systems. From the outset, there was a consensus that the conference should consider the wider global contexts of academic transformations, we without imbuing this topic with a Cold War mentality and also not with a frontier spirit. The point was not to rethink higher education sectors in the West while defining China either as a source of competition, or as a land of endless opportunities for resource-hungry universities.

China in the Global Academic Landscapes

Wang Hui (Tsinghua)

Much rather, the conference participants were encouraging the scholarly community to think more globally about the overarching theme of China in the Global Academic Landscapes, which means that we do not start from premises surrounding national academic systems or even “national interests.” To be more precise, the first panel offered critical observations on the structures and cultures of Chinese Studies in various European countries, including Great Britain, France and Germany. The second panel posed some challenging questions regarding the trajectories of China-related research in general but did so with a special emphasis on the United States. The following two panels then set the focus on different world regions. Mainly dealing with regions in East and Southeast Asia, the third panel explored transnational or decidedly regional possibilities for developing China as an academic arena. The fourth panel treated China as a global academic subject while concentrating on universities in Turkey and India. The last two panels then chiefly addressed some important transformations that are tied to the growth of the Chinese university sector. Panel five offered reflections and observations on new transnational collaborations involving Chinese universities. The sixth regular panel then investigated important aspects of the enormous transformations affecting research and tertiary education in China (for the conference program see Appendix 1, for abstracts of the conference papers see Appendix 4).


China in the GlobalAcademic Landscapes

Lydia Liu (Columbia) asking a question

Yet the global/local paths and patterns of academic structures and institutions relevant for the study of China were only one foundational theme of the conference. An area of equal importance were the epistemological impacts of the changing academic landscapes in the past, present and future. This was particularly relevant for the social sciences and humanities – fields that are, after all, not only subject to academic transformations but whose task it is also critique, rethink and contextualizing them. In various presentations as well as discussions it became clear that the changing patterns of worldwide academic influence pose some rather new challenges to the social sciences and humanities. At the same time, they grant a new character to problems that have already been long debated. An example is the question of Eurocentrism which for many decades has been subject to academic controversies. But today, various presenters argue, changes in global influence and world order give this topic a new spin. For instance, when we are problematizing the continued marginalization of China in most European academic systems, we are no longer merely reproaching a hegemonic pose. Much rather, university systems which continue to marginalize East Asia (and other parts of the world, for that matter) now start looking somewhat out-of-date. If, with an ironic twist, we would view this situation through the linear scales reaching from forerunners to latecomers, it is now many European systems that start looking “behind.”

This is just brief example for the close entanglements between structural transformations and epistemological challenges in the social sciences and the humanities. Yet certainly various conference participants warned that we should not go so far as to suggest that we are already looking at a post-Western-centric setting when discussing the current global condition of the social sciences and humanities. Many of the older imbalances and power relations remain. For instance, despite the rapid climb of leading Chinese universities in the worldwide academic ranking systems, scholarship produced there is still underrepresented in the West (and many other parts of the world). To further concretize this example: global historians or global sociologists in Europe and the United States are typically not even remotely aware of the scholarship produced in such an important academic system as China. At the same time, their Chinese colleagues need to refer to Anglo-American publications in order to be taken seriously by their local own colleagues. In the social sciences and humanities this pattern is arguably even stronger than in the natural sciences – but this is a subject that we may be able to discuss during these coming two days.

In other words, it became clear that hierarchies of knowledge continue to characterize the social sciences and humanities. According to most participants, these patterns will most probably change, sometime and somehow – which again leads to a large variety of questions. Many of them surround the global impact of China’s changing academic system. For instance, will the Chinese university sector, will its surrounding intellectual communities be closely wedded to projects of nation-building, or will they unfold their inherent regional and transnational potentials? Will leading Chinese universities come to figure as global academic transaction hubs bringing together minds from all over the world? If so, will they follow the footsteps of US-American universities? Or would globally connected scholarly communities also lead into different intellectual directions when they are based at Chinese universities?

These questions were being further pursued in the closing note by William Kirby (Harvard University), and at the same time they were being related to the conditions of China-related academic structures and cultures in Germany. This was also the main theme in the concluding public panel which was composed of representatives of the Federal Ministry of Education, the Max Planck Society as well as important representatives of German foundations, including Wilhelm Krull (general secretary, Volkswagen Foundation), Margaret Wintermantel (president, German Academic Exchange Service/DAAD), Peter Strohschneider (president, German National Research Foundation/DFG). For short biographies see Appendix 3.

China in the GlobalAcademic Landscapes

The panel returned to some of the issues that were being discussed during the first conference on “China in the German Academic Landscapes”, which was held in 2013. For instance, the discussions confirmed some official data that in the natural sciences, Sino-German academic collaborations are far more vivid, wide-spread. They also tend to be more evenly balanced in the sense of shared funding and an equal exchange of scholars. Outside the field of sinology, the social sciences and humanities still hardly serve as academic bridge-builders with Chinese or East Asian scholarship.

A second issue were the institutional settings of China-related scholarship in Germany. To start with some facts and figures: there are barely more than 60 professors in Germany whom one could categorize as “China specialists.” This number also includes the field of sinology: the latter discipline hosts the lion’s share of China specialists in the ranks of university professors: about 39. The rest, a little more than twenty professorships are spread over a large variety of fields ranging from the political sciences to history and from literature to sociology.

This led, thirdly, to the presence of expertise on China within many academic fields. Even at many important universities, large fields such as political sciences, economics or philosophy do not have a single faculty member working on China within their ranks. For instance, in all of Germany only two history professors can be categorized as scholars working on China. Several panelists maintained that the absence of China-related scholarship in larger fields leads to significant problems. In terms of research, the institutional pattern, which segregates many experts on China into sinology departments, can make it harder to break through Eurocentric disciplinary cultures. Time and again, participants of the October 2013 conference observed the relative disinterest of many professors in Germany in non-Western world regions. In terms of teaching, it means that many students (especially those outside of regional studies) are not in the position to gain access to China-related knowledge, even if they are interested in it. The Western-centric of many key disciplines may not adequately prepare the group of individuals who in the future want to hold a responsible position, no matter whether in academia, business, politics or other sectors.

This open panel was followed by a brief closed meeting with the same panelists. During the meeting it was argued that in Germany there is quite a potential to significantly strengthen the position and impact of China-related scholarship. A major factor is the unusually strong role of third-party funding (particularly supplied by foundations) at German universities. Soft money can create new structures rather quickly, even if only on a temporary basis. There are some successful examples for institutions in which experts on China are now working together with other scholars, covering wider – regional or even global – research and teaching agendas. Yet the some attendees also remarked that it would be desirable to conceptualize alternatives to the currently existing institutional setups. This raises the general question, what specific structures and kinds of resources would be needed for the German academic system. For instance, are special forms of transnational collaboration (for example with institutions in East Asia) but also on a European level feasible? The meeting concluded with an eye on the possibility of holding another meeting of academic decision-makers and representatives of foundations as well as ministries of education (federal and state level).



Please find more information on the conference below including the program and Appendices.

China in the Global Academic Landscape further information and Appendices