China Studies’ Coming of Age Story in Taiwan and A few Pointers for India
Dr Chen Mu-min

In her 2006 Report on China Studies in India, Madhavi Thampi pointed out that there is a lack of depth and rigour in China centric research within India1. Much does not seem to have changed as she noted the similar observation in her January 2021 China Studies assessment report for Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi2. In these 15 years, not only China has become an inevitable economic force to reckon with, its influence has snowballed in the world politics. Being India’s fellow Asian ‘frenemy’, understanding and grasping Beijing in its totality is both strategically and intellectually is imperative, and it requires more than a skewed focus on security, by ‘strategic community’, for geo-political advantages.

The Sino-Indian war of 1962 was a major deterrent to India’s diversified engagements and exchanges across sectors with China; which as Arunabh Ghosh, a historian of Modern China puts; has become India’s other China Problem. As he elucidated, People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) triumph over Indian army ‘paradoxically’ marshalled the research away from the pre-independence humanistic approach of Tagore's Cheena Bhavana i.e. a thorough study of China’s history, art, literature and culture3. The underlined reasoning that ‘peace and tranquillity in the border areas is the basis for development of relations in other domains’, as professed by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at the 13th All India Conference of China Studies4, percolates through both public and private consciousness.

Where India has struggled to really ‘know’ its neighbouring civilization under political clouds, Taiwan has matured into one of the most vibrant and well-established locations for China studies in past decades. Considering the grave subject of national identity being at the very centre of Taiwan-China relations, China Studies has fared well in Taiwan’s democratic society against political turbulence. The article reflects on this transformation and puts forward Taiwan as an ideal partner for India to learn and cooperate with.

From Tabooing to Championing China

China studies in Taiwan were first created to serve political needs. In the peak of the East-West confrontation, Taiwan was one of few places in the world capable of collecting information and analysing China. Kuomintang (KMT) government’s engagement with Communist “bandits” was primarily indoctrinated and intelligence-based to magnify the ‘miserable and chaotic’ life under the Communist rule. As Shih Cheng-feng indicated, China Studies during this period was mostly analyses of intelligence collected behind the Iron Curtain, quite similar to so-called Kremlinology: studies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the West.5 The research institutes were mainly state-initiated or government-affiliated with research manpower being recruited from KMT cadres, intelligence officers, and even former Communist Party members.6

Since some of them had direct personnel experience with the CCP, their writings provided a valuable understanding of China from the outside world. One of the lead-in institutions, the Institute of International Relations (guojiguanxiyanjiuzhongxin), was established at the time in 1953 by the government to keep eye on contemporary affairs in Mainland China. IIR directly reported to President Chiang Kai-shek and only drafted analyses for the KMT government.

With the growing economic closeness with United States and the limited functionality of ideologically ridden research in the 1980s, many in Taiwan’s research community pushed for scholarly-based knowledge creation and scientific-led China Studies programs. Especially, the young scholars trained in US academic institutions with rigorous research methodologies and theory-driven social sciences, played an instrumental role in introducing fresh take on China-focussed research and helped build connections with the China studies communities in the West.

The further waves of democratisation and academic liberalisation in the 1990s added a new force to explore academic integrity and professionalism across disciplines. The resumption of travel and cultural visits for Taiwanese people to Mainland China also provided new opportunities and sources to circulate information and study interests about China from societal perspectives. The aspiration to uphold the international academic environment brought changes to national educational policy and performance evaluations, requiring researchers to conduct rigorous scholarly research and publish in competitive disciplinary journals, in order to meet global standards.

In 2003 Taiwan government further lifted the ban on importation of Chinese publications to Taiwan, a policy that had been consistently maintained for over five decades. Researches related to China also became more diversified: in addition to the studies on politics of CCP and China’s foreign relations which has been mainstream focus in previous decades, scholars also started exploring the topics such as central-local relations, social-economic transformation under the reforms, fiscal and property rights reforms, local politics, and Taiwan-China exchanges.

Today, China studies in Taiwan have developed into a sub-field under political science, and in terms of methodology they became more qualified as products of scientific researches. A leading edited volume, Elites and Policies of CCP Regime (Dangguo Tuibian: zhonggongzhengquan de jingyingyujuece) 2008, provided several models to examine Chinese politics, many of which were first developed by Taiwanese scholars. At same time, many Chinese researchers also chose to publish their books and articles in Taiwan. Wang Hui, the prominent leader of the New Leftist intellectuals, Wang Lixiong and Tsering Woeser, the famous couple writing on Tibet, and Yang Guangbin, a scholar of modern Chinese politics from Renmin University, all had their books published in Taiwan. The freer academic atmosphere and mature publishing market (and academic journals) makes Taiwan a more attractive place for Chinese scholars to promote their works in the Chinese language world.

It’s Time to Learn and Work with Taiwan

New Delhi establishment has long feared and ditched symbiotic relationship between wider pool of academic expertise and policy in favour of policy-led world of China. With foreign policy being the major lens to understand China; as voiced by academicians and practitioners7; China Studies in India still suffers from i) inadequate infrastructural support- committed funding, literary resources, qualified faculty, mandarin language teachers etc. ii) lack of methodological rigour, language integration and ‘anti-intellectualism’ iii) geographically concentrated (primarily New Delhi) China studies programmes and centres iv) limited employment opportunities and most significantly v) inconsistent political outlook and bureaucratic hurdles.

There is a lot to do to better China Studies in India and Taiwan can serve as more than a guiding example for India. Under its New Southbound Policy, Taiwan seeks a broader cooperation with India to boost and strengthen Mandarin Language Training and China Studies across higher education institutes in India, remarks Legislator Wu Yu-Chin of Taiwan8. Despite the politically charged Cross-strait relations, Taiwanese universities and think-tanks have utilised geographic proximity and language familiarity to their advantage of accessing China. A formal initiative for India-Taiwan collaborative scholarship or exchange programmes could ensure the same for young Indian scholars. The Ministry of Education, Taiwan language and doctoral studies scholarships has already assisted Indian students to learn mandarin and pursue Mainland China focussed research in a democratic and open society of Taiwan.

The easy access to key Chinese platforms such as CNKI, financial support for international conference participation and field research and a parallel language tutoring has enriched China Studies experience of Indian students in Taiwan. With the increased crackdown and manipulation of archival resources in China, Taiwan’s extensive and still unexplored archives have a lot to add to India-China Studies9. A more systematic and durable cooperation on China Studies between Taipei and New Delhi would be a step towards strengthening Asian or ‘south-south’ perspectives on China and ‘Asia as method’, a framework forwarded by Taiwanese scholar Chen Kuan-Hsing of Jiaotung University.

At this crucial juncture, ignorance would not be bliss for India and a limited knowledge of China would certainly be misleading. It is imperative for Indian establishment to remove its cognitive blinders to let both domestic and international like-minded stakeholders mutually reinforce their efforts and partnerships for an advance and pragmatic future of China Studies in India.

Endnotes
  1. Thampi, Madhavi. 2006. A Report and Recommendations, Review Workshop on China Studies in India, New Delhi.
  2. Thampi, Madhavi. 2021. “Recent Initiatives to Promote China Studies in India: A Preliminary Report and Assessment”, ICS Occasional Paper, January, No. 66, Institute of Chinese Studies: New Delhi.
  3. HimalSouthAsian. 2020. “India’s Other China Problem”, Interview, 19 June, https://www.himalmag.com/indias-other-china-problem-interview-2020/
  4. Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. 2021. “Keynote Address by External Affairs Minister at the 13th All India Conference of China Studies”, 28 January, https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/33419/Keynote+Address+by+External+Affairs+Minister+at+the+13th+All+India+Conference+of+China+Studies
  5. Cheng-Feng Shih. 2013. “China Studies’ Development and Challenges”, Taiwan International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 1-26.
  6. Kai-huang Yang.2000. “Mainland China in Taiwan: Review and Prospect,” Political Science Journal of Soochow University, no. 11, 71-105.
  7. Sen, Tansen. 2013. “Is there a need for China Studies in India”?, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 29, 26-29
    - Ubeori, Patricia. 2013. “China Studies in India-3”, China Report, Volume: 49 issue: 2, page(s): 185-196
  8. Interview. 2021. “Taiwan Nextgen Foundation Weekly Virtual Interaction with Legislators”, 19 July.
  9. Sen, Tansen. 2021. “China–India Studies: Emergence, Development, and State of the Field”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 80, No. 2 (May) 2021: 363–387.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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