When I arrived in China to begin my academic career in 2010, I really didn’t know what to expect. As a historian I was aware that the nation had, for much of the twentieth century, been largely closed to the west. Although I was not overly concerned about this, seeing my move to China as temporary, a nagging feeling remained in my mind that being away from the western academic system for too long could prove detrimental to my long-term career. It only took a few short months in China for me to realise that this could not be further from the truth.
There are over 3000 universities in mainland China. However, the Chinese Education Ministry have an international mission. They understand that being the best in China, or indeed Asia, is not enough for it to fulfil its long-term goal of raising China into a major world power in all areas of life. Gone are the previously-dominant isolationist views to be replaced by a desire to become competitive on a world stage. The aim of achieving this has been helped, in part, by the growing middle class in China. This growing affluence has enabled more students to pursue further study overseas, who have subsequently embarked on a career in the Chinese university sector. Yet many within the Chinese higher education system do not see this as a substitute for native speakers with a high education from a western (primarily English-speaking) environment. To this end, universities with access to greater government funding often provide foreign academics with the tools they need to do the job, and to do it well.
Without seeking to state the obvious, or to plagiarise the eminent politician who said “the job is what you make of it”, what you can achieve in China depends heavily on your desire to improve and to “put yourself out there” in terms of getting recognition. Funding will be available to attend international conferences in the traditional hot spots of the UK, USA and Canada, although do not neglect other opportunities to attend conferences in Asia. Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Mainland China, all of whom have a vast array of academic networks that all operate in English that remain largely unknown to the western audience. All are craving for more acknowledgements outside Asia. It is your participation in such networks that will not only enhance your academic reach and research prowess, but it will also increase the opportunities of these respective academic groups to gain greater recognition outside Asia.
Publishing also forms a major part of an academic career in China, and it is through the initiatives offered by Chinese universities that help scholars gain additional research power. Asia is certainly not exempt from the philosophy developed in western universities of ‘publish or perish’. However, the larger, wealthier Chinese universities have adopted a carrot and stick approach to this issue. All publications receive separate financial bonuses, all of which are provided at the end of the academic year in addition to your basic salary. Furthermore, articles in higher-ranked and indexed journals, such as the Arts and Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI) and Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), receive higher bonuses than journals not indexed in prestigious abstracting services. Additionally, academics are eligible to compete for funding that will help the preparation of a research article. This funding can then be used to defray costs of attending a conference to present your draft paper, the cost of buying books or any other materials to assist with research. It is these resources and opportunities that certainly enhance the research environment available to young scholars seeking to publish their work in the world’s best journals.
One of the biggest assets for foreign academics in China is the fact that they can write and publish in English. Although many younger faculty members in Chinese universities have received an education outside China, and have written their PhD in English, many choose, understandably, to write in their native Chinese when returning to China. Nevertheless, the method used by the Chinese government to assess research quality (which is similar to the British REF) places higher emphasis on materials published in internationally-renowned English publications. Therefore, anyone publishing in English in international journals is already achieving higher research power than their Chinese counterparts. Consequently, this increases the overall ranking of the department, and improves the funding streams awarded by central government. For many department heads, this is the biggest asset that any foreign faculty member can bring. For foreign faculty working in China, this provides an excellent opportunity not only to build your reputation as an international scholar, but to enhance your CV for progression either in China or in another country.
Moving to a foreign country, especially if you don’t know anyone, is bound to be particularly daunting. Furthermore, a lack of familiarity with the system (which is significantly different to Britain) is also likely to deepen any feelings of uncertainty. I can say that from my experience, if you remain focused on building your career and express clearly your research agenda to your department head, there is a large level of support on both an academic and financial level that will help you to attain your goal.