An Argument Against Moral Crusading – By Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert



German sinologists Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert wanted to stimulate a factual discussion on the increasingly polarized, normative German China research. For this reason, both have published an excellent article in the German newspaper FAZ a few days ago. As a colleague of them wrote:

“An increasingly polarized world loses the intellectual capacity to reflect upon moral grey zones or the darkness within one’s self, in this case the moral responsibility of the West for co-creating the ruins we live in. In the end, China might ‘win’ not just economically, but also in terms of value, when liberal intolerance reigns in liberal democracies. The delusion of moral purity is perhaps among the gravest dangers we face today. Such an article by colleagues Alpermann and Schubert, therefore, cannot be more timely. I am curious to see what kind of reaction it may, or may not, generate.”

Unfortunately, the reaction from parts of the German China research community have been anything but encouraging. On the contrary, it confirmed the suspicion of liberal intolerance and the delusion of moral purity in the worst way. Instead of answering to Alpermann’s and Schubert’s criticism as they should – with arguments – a number of German sinologists around Andreas Fulda started a campaign in the social media. In violation of basic principles of academic fairness, they published only an English answer to the FAZ article, accompanied by short defamatory accompanying texts against its authors. Schubert writes: “We do not want to and cannot join this fight for discursive supremacy on the net. But we can’t put up with everything either. We have now made an English translation of our FAZ article ourselves, which I attach to you here.” would like to contribute to enlightenment by also making this text available to our readers.  

We do agree with Fulda et al. that science must be ‘free’ – whether it is Chinese research on Germany or German research on China – in the sense that it can have only one goal: the truth. And truth knows no ‘compromise’. Research can therefore not be instructed by politics – and it must be able to face a scientific critique of its methods, or it is not research, but opinion or ideology. And research must be open-ended. Anyone who wants to impose normative shackles on research may call himself a religious warrior or a crusader – but he has forfeited the title of scientist. Most of all, research needs to face the fact that any observation is site-dependent. It does not result from itself. It is both contingent and refers to a specific address of construction – in this case a Western, a German one. This is why, in the words of Alpermann and Schubert, “sufficient self  reflection” is important. An ‘objective’ China given independently of the observer doesn’t exist. We can see the failure to account for the observer in Fulda’s essentialist, sometimes even fundamentalist approach towards China. And in the fact that they themselves are doing what they accuse Alpermann and Schubert of: they spread suggestive misinformation, and discredit any criticism of the West, of the USA, of the “official narratives” on human rights, freedom, democracy, as an Eastern media campaign. One could also see it humorously with Alpermann: With their campaign via social media and mailing lists, he says, the authors provided convincing evidence for his “crusade” metaphor. Alpermann: “One could not have wished for more apt proof of this very mentality.”

We hereby call on all students and China researchers to help disseminate the translation of the article by Alpermann and Schubert in your channels if possible and thus contribute to a return to a self reflective, unideological, ‘two-sided’ discussion in German China research. And if you are studying at a university and looking for a topic: consider writing theses or dissertations on the mechanisms of this peculiar, highly normative German China research. One can learn a lot about Germany and the shifting Western academic discourse here – at least much more than about China. 

The Editorial Board


By Björn Alpermann and Gunter Schubert

China research is not political activism. We need to make tactical concessions in order to keep the path to understanding China open. Accusations of conforming to PRC demands are baseless.

Considering the increasing importance of the People’s Republic of China in the global economy and international politics, the question of how to improve our China expertise within universities has been a hot topic for some time—not only in the mainstream media, but also within German university politics. The debate has run parallel to a concerted media attack on “China sympathisers” within the German China Studies community who allegedly are unable to generate the expertise necessary for a proper examination of contemporary authoritarian China. According to journalists and even some China scholars, these German sinologists had not yet realised the threat they were dealing with. Out of naivety, clumsy opportunism or Chinese Partystate intimidation, these German sinologists ignored or belittled human rights violations in the PRC as well as—allegedly increasingly successful—efforts by the CCP regime to infiltrate German universities. Some, like University of Nottingham lecturer Andreas Fulda, go so far as to accuse German China research of a moral failure and of cowardice when dealing with the PRC, demanding state intervention to bring German universities into line when it comes to China policy. With flimsy arguments and vague, suggestive language, it is being implied that German China research currently practices self-censorship across the board and is therefore being manipulated from abroad. At least, this is what Fulda argues in an essay published in Autumn 2021 on the topic. He suggests that China research at German universities is highly dependent on “questionable” funding and that many of their China-related study programs could not function if financial support from the PRC were no longer offered. However, for this apparent statement of fact, like for so many others, he offers no proof. Charades like this must be resolutely opposed, as they represent a new moral crusade which not only prevents proper intellectual debate with a China that is becoming increasingly influential worldwide, but which also prevents the development of much-needed, high-quality China expertise at German universities. 

“We have to push back against these new crusaders’ demand that German China scholars must continuously, publicly position themselves against grievances and political suppression in China and continuously, publicly denounce the regime.”

The perspective on contemporary China has become one-sided, followed by a moral doctrine that no longer permits or listens to alternative arguments. So much so, that a countermovement has emerged. In the latest issue of the specialist journal “minima sinica”, well-known China scholars take a stance against a “hostile discourse on China”. However, most of them are at the end of their careers and often argue just as one-sidedly as their opponents. How can China research position itself against this normative and politically-charged academic backdrop? How can scholars ensure that their perspectives on China remain sufficiently objective? And what kind of new China expertise do we need in our universities—and across society more broadly—if we hope to teach young people how to understand and deal with this country, considering this new geopolitical and economic context?

In our view, more than anything else, three things are needed to ensure appropriate and futureoriented China discussions: 1) Access to the country; 2) Rejecting the idea of any need for a “morality entrance exam” for China research; and 3) Maintaining a dialogue with Chinese universities.

On the first point: If one wants to convey knowledge about China, first-hand data is needed. To gather said data, access to the country is absolutely essential. It is the public obligation of every university lecturer, as an expert funded by taxpayers, to produce empirically-verified knowledge about China—preferably through their own observation and analysis. This actually quite selfe-vident approach to research raises several problems, however, and these are problems that German China research has struggled with for years. Two of these are absolutely fundamental, one in terms of research practice and the other in terms of research and scientific ethics. Firstly, how can reliable data be generated when access to China is becoming increasingly difficult and the barriers to cooperation with local partners are multiplying by the day? And what stance should China research take on the ever-increasing demand—not least from within its own ranks—that it must take a clear position against Chinese human rights violations? Especially when this criticism can lead to entry visas no longer being issued and cooperation with local research partners becoming impossible, potentially even risking these partners’ safety by landing them in political trouble. Navigating all this requires creative research strategies. However, as soon as China researchers find ways to “frame” their topics in a politically sensitive manner, in order to be able to do their work in China, accusations of apologising for power and self-censorship are already on the way. Then they are accused of no longer wanting to carry out critical research for the sake of maintaining access to the country, or of concealing human rights violations and thus making themselves the willing accomplices of the CCP regime’s ideological propaganda machine. These accusations conveniently overlook, however, that this is an indispensable and well established practice for generating valuable insights into the inner workings of authoritarian systems the world over. Just as good practice demands that researchers show sufficient self reflection and sensitivity when analysing and presenting data they have obtained in such a way that scientific sincerity is guaranteed. Here, the China-critical narrative tries to lead us to suspect all China researchers of being either bribed, manipulated or intimidated. Such a view not only ignores an extremely critical community of peers who keep a close eye on research output and who usually identify empirical deficits accurately, but it also accuses German China researchers as a whole of not publicly taking a stand against human rights violations—a statement that is demonstrably false. We are presented with an unfounded distrust in the self-regulatory capacity of German China research, along with an astonishing degree of arrogance from those who would rather not face the challenges of doing actual empirical research in China and would instead prefer to loudly demand isolationism and normative purity. Returning to the second of our three points, it is clear that China research requires a moral compass and an ethically-informed research strategy. But is empirically-oriented China research that makes tactical compromises in research design for the sake of access to the field inherently immoral? Or is China research only legitimate if it deals solely with problems and consciously accepts that it can only observe China from the outside and no longer be able to research it from within?

We have to push back against these new crusaders’ demand that German China scholars must continuously, publicly position themselves against grievances and political suppression in China and continuously, publicly denounce the regime——whether in the media or with their signature under an open letter to demonstrate their solidarity with colleagues hit with sanctions or with dissidents persecuted by the CCP. Failing to do so, according to the previously-cited Andreas Fulda and his comrade-in-arms David Missal in a recently-published article, means China scholars “would have failed their test”.

“Unless we separate our research from normative biases, we risk subjecting China research to an attitude test that seeks to distinguish between ‘acceptable’ and ‘not acceptable’ research, ultimately creating an echo-chamber in which we can only see our own issues and no further.”

We argue against this position. We hold that the central task of China research—to produce knowledge about China—should be negotiated separately from the question of how its scholars position themselves on a normative level in relation to the authoritarian regime in China. Unless we separate our research from normative biases, we risk subjecting China research to an attitude test that seeks to distinguish between “acceptable” and “not acceptable” research, ultimately creating an echo-chamber in which we can only see our own issues and no further. However, substantive China expertise cannot function without reconstructing and understanding the Chinese perspective. This has nothing to do with opportunism; it is the most basic requirement of solid, scientific research. On our final point: China research and sinology training require institutionalised cooperation with universities in China, no matter how difficult this might be. The new crusaders never tire of pointing out how much the Chinese government is said to be interfering with German universities—for example, through Confucius Institutes, a state-organised spy system, or through the government-controlled manipulation of university management by offering to set up Chinese-endowed professorships. These are all problems against which German universities will have to form a strategy in the future. However, a call for strict regulation or even the complete cessation of cooperation with Chinese universities is short-sighted and shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the relationship between the state and universities in China. Universities in China are currently under enormous pressure to ideologically fly the flag of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. However, they are by no means simple agents of or recruitment organs for party-state power politics. Rather, they are still places where tomorrow’s Chinese elites are trained. Opportunities still exist for critical debates with western perspectives on China, and vice versa. China research as a whole has a duty to maintain these channels, no matter what higher education political regime Chinese universities and their staff are exposed to. German China research needs access to China to generate and provide knowledge on China which, incidentally, is the primary purpose of their work—not the moral condemnation of an authoritarian regime. It is also not their job to play up to the “decoupling folly” of a China-critical narrative popular within certain political interest groups and among certain moralising crusaders. There is no question, Chinese research cannot ignore critical problems like the human rights situation in China or the neo-imperial demands of the CCP-regime. In fact, China research is explicitly not doing this, instead it does justice to this task in a way that divides the workload. For example, the authors of this article themselves deal critically with the “Xinjiang Conflict” and the “Taiwan Question”. Many other examples can be cited and it is quite simply false to assert that German China research covers its eyes in the face of uncomfortable topics. Even if the new crusaders don’t want to admit it, genuine China research needs differences of opinion. Polarisation will only make it blind, shallow and, ultimately, obsolete.

Published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 9, 2022, p. N4.

Graphic and lay-out: D. Zhang