Breaking Boundaries with Global China Studies: Reflections from Western Australia 

Breaking Boundaries with Global China Studies: Reflections from Western Australia 

As China’s influence spreads throughout the global landscape, including through economic initiatives and cultural diplomacy, the need for research beyond superficial observations is becoming more apparent. In response to this, and with the support of an event grant from the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), Yu Tao, Monica Tan, and Ratih Kabinawa are organising a series of idea and capacity development events tailored for Early and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs) with a keen interest in the broad theme of global China.

By EMCRs and for EMCRs, this event series aims to be more than just a platform for academic exchange but a space for innovative thinking and a launch pad for new research in understanding China’s evolving global footprint. The inaugural event in this series, “Grounding Global China in the Indo-Pacific: Western Australian Perspectives”, took place on Thursday, 2 November, at the University of Western Australia (UWA) on Noongar Boodjar. The one-day colloquium convened a diverse range of EMCRs from various academic institutions across Western Australia, including UWA, Curtin University, and Murdoch University. Five WA-based EMCRs presented their ongoing research at this colloquium, each presenting their own lens to view interactions between global China and the Indo-Pacific region.

With immense pride, we, the organisers, reflect on how this colloquium has nurtured an academic ecosystem, fostered cross-disciplinary dialogue, and deepened our collective understanding of global China from a Western Australian perspective.

Presentation Highlights and Lessons from Peer “Feed-Forward”

The five presentations shed light on the many ways global China interacts with diverse historical, political, and cultural landscapes. Vannessa Hearman discussed several life histories of Chinese-Timorese people who sought refuge in Australia during the Indonesian occupation to examine how understanding their experiences can nuance the writing of national histories and international relations. Ratih Kabinawa examined the impact of state-society transformation in Taiwan on the practice and role of Taiwan’s Qiaowu towards overseas Chinese communities in Indonesia, a country with a significant ethnic Chinese population. Isaac Frimpong interrogated China’s growing influence in Africa against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasising the need to critically assess the impacts of China’s new security diplomacy on the continent. From the lens of critical political economy, Brian U. Doce analysed China’s halal export economy, highlighting the challenges faced by China-based halal companies due to the absence of a national halal law. Samuel Jardine investigated how Chinese modernity is represented to Western publics, arguing for the need to look at a broader selection of representations to understand contemporary attitudes.

In a spirit of collegiality and academic progression, each presenter not only had the chance to display their work but also the opportunity to receive “feed-forward” from colleagues. Each presenter participated in the process of offering constructive feedback to fellow presenters. There were many lessons gleaned from this feed-forward, including the importance of precisely pinpointing theoretical frameworks and the benefits of an ambitious approach to gathering empirical data while maintaining flexibility in one’s engagement with theoretical frameworks. In addition, the conversations highlighted the necessity for EMCRs to be open to interdisciplinary perspectives, hone their methodological skills, and seek collaborations that hold the potential to enhance their research. We believe these valuable lessons are applicable to EMCRs across various subfields in and beyond Asian studies.

Breaking the Imagined Boundaries 

The colloquium highlighted the need to dismantle three “imagined boundaries” within Asian studies while identifying the fresh prospects that global China studies can usher into the endeavour.

Firstly, China studies and Asian studies should transcend geographical boundaries. The social, cultural, and political dynamics of mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the diasporic Chinese communities worldwide are not isolated but shape each other. In the context of globalisation, the interplay between these various elements has become more pronounced. Research that examines the confluence of individuals, institutions, and ideas, which comprise a global China, will yield thoughtful insights.

Secondly, the interplay between historical progression and contemporary dynamics in global Chinese communities demands an integrated approach to China studies. The historical backdrop informs current affairs, while the present landscape is often heavily shaped by the past. This interconnectedness calls for a bridging of academic silos, particularly between the traditionally history-focused Asian studies and the expanding literature on contemporary issues, encouraging scholars to pursue a comprehensive understanding across time.

Thirdly, global China studies encourage the dissolution of traditional scholarly boundaries between political studies and international relations. In the context of global China, from the Belt and Road Initiative to the New Southbound Policy, domestic politics and foreign policies are interwoven, necessitating an integrated approach that recognises the interplay between domestic political strategies and international diplomacy. This interplay has also demonstrated the importance of non-state agents in supporting global China outreach across the Indo-Pacific region.

In this context, we see grounding global China – through focusing on its actual operations and perceptions on the ground – as a promising effort to integrate these different perspectives into a more comprehensive understanding of China’s evolving landscape and its global influence. In doing so, we seek to bridge geographic, historic, and disciplinary boundaries to forge a more holistic path for China and Asian studies.

Western Australian Perspectives

Evident in the presentations and discussions, studies of global China redefine not only the scope of inquiry but also the methodologies and frameworks with which we understand an evolving world. So, what can perspectives from Western Australia offer to this emerging field?

Despite its geographical isolation from the many established epicentres of China studies, Western Australia carves a unique niche within the academic landscape. Its proximity to Southeast Asia, position in the world’s most populous time zone, and status as a component of the Indian Ocean rim, afford WA-based scholars of global China distinct opportunities for broader access and engagement with the communities they examine. Collectively, these attributes offer a distinct advantage for scholars in Western Australia to take a pioneering role in conducting fieldwork and facilitating scholarly exchanges that more strongly incorporate local perspectives. This approach enriches relevant academic fields with broader perspectives and deeper insights.

Moreover, the colloquium underscored the significance of local knowledge networks in nurturing discourse and sustaining academic rigour, especially within a relatively isolated academic setting. We are optimistic and confident that the academic networks fostered at this event will endure and bring valuable scholarly results to the study of global China.

Moving forward, we aim to utilise the internet to surpass geographical constraints, initiating conversations with EMCRs in global China studies across the globe. With these objectives, we are organising the final event in the series on 19 December, titled “The Chinese World in a Global Context: Beyond Borders and Boundaries”. We cordially invite interested EMCRs to join what promises to be a fruitful academic exchange.

Feature image: Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Yu Tao is an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences in the University of Western Australia, where he currently chairs the Asian Studies discipline and coordinates the Chinese studies program.

Xiao Tan (Monica) is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies in the University of Melbourne.

Ratih Kabinawa is a doctoral candidate in International Relations and Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. She is a recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship 2024 and will commence her fellowship in April 2024.

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