Is collaboration between the UK and China getting more difficult for researchers?

Geopolitical friction is complicating research partnerships between the UK and China. Kexin (Casey) Yu has been looking at the facts on the ground

Kexin is a DPhil student in higher education at University of Oxford

Research collaboration between the UK and China is both increasingly important and increasingly complicated.

China is projected to take over from the USA as the UK’s biggest research collaborator, but the possibility for diplomatic tensions between the two countries to impede academic partnerships is widely remarked. So it’s crucial to have a deeper understanding of how the China-UK collaboration process is experienced by individual researchers from both countries.

In my project for the Centre for Global Higher Education, I interviewed eight researchers (four Chinese and four British) about their experiences in China-UK research collaboration. While all of them work primarily in the field of education, their perceptions showed how the experiences of people on the ground may contrast with the dramatic headlines we constantly see in the media.

Plenty of benefits

The first thing many of my participants shared with me is the benefits they gained from the China-UK collaboration. It helps them start to build a network in another country. Researchers from both countries were aware that co-authored papers tend to attract more citations, especially from the collaborating country.

For UK researchers who are interested in China-related issues, collaborating with Chinese colleagues can help them make sense of the population and the context they aim to investigate. One UK researcher told me that she and her Chinese collaborator published a paper in Chinese in a local journal. She believed the paper eventually had greater academic and social impact than if it had been published in a SSCI-indexed journal – because it reached the target community of interest.

From my conversation with the Chinese and British researchers, most collaboration is generally based on equal contribution from both sides, and can lead to significant theoretical enrichment drawing on their respective expertise.

Some early-career Chinese researchers tend to view their UK collaborators as supervisors and themselves as learners. Such collaborations are beneficial for both sides – the Chinese researcher gets their work reviewed and revised, and the UK researcher also gets a publication as the second author.

Enter geopolitics

However, as the US government becomes more hostile towards Chinese academics – and US institutions more cautious than UK institutions about collaboration with Chinese scholars who have government affiliation – opportunities to come to the UK as a visiting scholar are more competitive than before.

That’s not to say that UK-China collaborations are culturally or geopolitically straightforward. Researchers often comment on broader cultural barriers, such as working culture – one Chinese academic found his UK colleagues too relaxed about the speed research was progressing – or institutional differences, with my UK participants noting that compared to the UK, education departments in China tend to have a narrower research focus.

Researchers from both China and the UK said they have felt the wider social and political influences on their collaborative work. Two of my Chinese interviewees said they felt pressured by the institutional requirement to uphold Chinese ideology and to avoid discussing sensitive issues such as Taiwan in both domestic and international work.

Some UK academics told me they are increasingly asked to justify their choice to choose Chinese researchers as collaborators and demonstrate the benefits for the UK before collaboration starts – this is less the case in China.

Mobility issues

Collaboration has been further complicated by the pandemic and restrictions on entry and exit in China. One UK researcher told me that because she highly valued in-person contact, for her the pandemic has thwarted several collaboration opportunities with Chinese researchers.

Similarly, one Chinese scholar said the number of her international collaborations has dropped since the pandemic started because many of her research partners were acquaintances from international conferences, which were now all happening online with little chance to network.

For projects that were suspended during the pandemic, one UK participant told me that she suspected her collaboration with China would not resume, saying that “collaborations have become more politicised… people are much more restrictive about who we work with and why and what we value”.

Up, down, where next?

These tensions and obstacles are definitely a cause for concern, as my research has shown that Chinese and UK researchers generally perceive their collaboration experiences as fulfilling, and leading to higher academic and social impact for their work.

It is also worth noting that my discussions with researchers in both countries have, overall, revealed that the collaborative ties in education studies between the two countries have continued to grow despite the influence of external political distrust. This, at least, should be a cause for hope.

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