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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

From France to China: years of cultural exchange to research on China

Jean-Luc Domenach

Texte intégral

1March 2004

2Those who, like me, do not like official rituals have to admit that from the way they have started, the France-China cultural exchange is rather a pleasant surprise. They have often hosted interesting activities and have sparked indisputable interest among the French public. This proves that China is an important cultural partner for France, even if Franco-Sino relations remain much more politically and economically problematic than the official celebrations lead us to believe.

3Researchers and academics specialising on China have naturally contributed substantially to these activities through their work, translations, articles, comments and participation in exhibitions, but their talent should not conceal the difficult situation of research on China.

4I will not venture into a scientific assessment that would call for international comparisons, distinctions between different areas of research and probably significant methodological debates as well, nor will I argue that the situation is more difficult than for other major areas under study. On the contrary, I believe that, like in all main “area studies”, research on China is suffering from two main sets of weaknesses, some are rather general; others specific.

5To concentrate on the most important aspects, as agreed by our colleagues, there is alack of both job offers and funding. It is not because these shortcomings are general, nor because the heads of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Research, the CNRS and several establishments make their best with their budgets that they should not voice their concerns publicly, public protests can only make their job easier.

6PhD and especially post-doctoral scholarships that would enable young doctors to be recruited, are not enough, which is why the best students are turning increasingly towards northn-American universities. The shortage of positions has brought about general Malthusianism, discouragement and understandable cautious behaviour among many young researchers (who are nevertheless better trained, more international and simply better than we were ourselves at their age). The worst no doubt is that it prevents us from placing the emphasis on priority research fields as quickly as we should. In the case of contemporary China, this means that we were unable to adequately develop work on post-Maoist China’s political economy, although its intellectual and functional importance is obvious.

7We also lack the means to fund research, like our colleagues in other fields. This shortcoming also often prevents us from embarking on major projects and restricts our participation in big international conferences. It therefore highlights our weaknesses and gives the impression that we are waning when we are simply absent. In my opinion, the worst is that the lack of funding limits the number of research trips abroad.

8I would like to stress this point because currently it is particularly serious. For many years, French research on China has developed without much of a relationship with the People’s Republic of China for obvious reasons: China is only half-open, with its widespread propaganda and research institutions that try to control cooperation programmes. We have reached this inevitable paradox of conducting research on China outside China, without hardly any contact with it. However, for a few years now, these flaws have been partially glossed over. Local research has become less complicated as Chinese publications have improved considerably. In other words, research trips are more useful than before, which is why so many European or American colleagues are now conducting fieldwork in China. An experimental social science unit has been established at the EFEO Centre in Beijing, while the CEFC pursues its activities in Hong Kong. These establishments can only really develop their role if French institutions are in a position to increase their budget for research trips, which is not the case today.

9I do not want to seem to be giving in to catastrophism or simply chiming in with the general protests against research budgets. Although Chinese studies in France are not on the verge of collapsing, but at a time when French businessmen are drooling over the Chinese market and when the general public is aware of what is at stake, we should, in my opinion, raise our voice. We should recall what is true in all domains: that research is a prerequisite for everything else, and the decline in public budgets is a cause for very serious concern. The issue on maintaining the level of French research on China and its budget has been raised; if it is not brought up during the France-China cultural exchange, when the devil will it be?

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