French universities remain hermetic to China

This is the English version of my opinion paper published in Le Monde newspaper on 28 January 2023.

“Il y a un pays voué à la vengeance et à la justice, un pays qui ne déposera pas les armes, qui ne déposera pas l’esprit avant l’affrontement planétaire. Déjà 300 ans d’ère européenne s’effacent, déjà l’ère chinoise commence” (André Malraux, Anti-mémoire, 1967)

At a time when the Chinese Communist Party has just concluded its 20th congress, with the induction of Xi Jinping for a third term marked with the seal “Make China Great Again,” the prophecy of Malraux takes on a particular relevance. What do we know about China in France today? What are our strengths to study, analyze and understand the driving forces of this unique country? What expertise do we have in French universities?

Forty years ago, at the onset of the reforms led by Deng Xiaoping, China could still be considered an “object of study” left to the care of a small number of specialists – sinologists – in a few institutions. Today, China is a political, economic, military and scientific power whose actions are deployed with force, determination, and strategy on a global scale. In the face of this multifaceted presence, have we developed our expertise capabilities? Have we nourished a broader and better-informed knowledge of China within French society? Clearly, the answer is no.

The question I raise here is that of the serious deficiency of French universities in creating an expertise to match the challenge that  China represents. Our degree of expertise depends on the ability to produce fundamental research, at the university or in research organizations. The operational expertise, complementary and necessary, as in some ministerial services or think tanks, is also intrinsically linked to the university. But what do we observe? The number of positions of China specialists has remained largely unchanged and it is still confined to a few specialized institutions and to CNRS.

Many young researchers have been trained in universities, with a remarkable production of doctoral dissertations based on solid field research and first-hand experience of Chinese society. What happens to these young researchers after their graduation? For many, it is first a struggle that begins: they bounce from temporary teaching and research (ATER) positions to postdocs for years, without a perspective of academic employment. Some eventually manage to secure a job, through perseverance, sometimes at an advanced age, but many of them give up or choose to emigrate. The reason is simple: French universities offer no outlet for specialists in social sciences on China. It is a huge waste of talent, even as the need for expertise and training for the young generations of French people on China is imperative. How did we get there? The primary responsibility lies with a university that remains hermetic to China. With the exception of the small number of Chinese language departments, consisting mainly of language and literature specialists, China is absent from French universities. How many historians, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, lawyers, and even anthropologists specializing in China hold jobs in the social science departments of universities? For each of the listed disciplines, the number is between zero and three.

At Aix-Marseille University, the only position in Asian history has been left vacant for four years, and the faculty has just decided to eliminate the position of professor in social sciences.on contemporary China. French universities continue to train students without any exposure to the challenges posed by today’s China.

Several Paris-based institutions contribute, fortunately, to the recruitment of China specialists, such as the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) or the School of Higher Studies in the Practical Sciences (EPHE); but their combined recruitment capacities cannot compensate for the absence of recruitment at the university. And in fact, the number of positions in these institutions has not changed in the last thirty years. At the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the number of Asia specialists has collapsed since 2002. Can we imagine that in sociology, political science, or economics, CNRS only has one researcher on China in 2022?

Harvard University, which alone has 48 China specialists (almost as many as INALCO, CNRS, EHESS, and EPHE combined), advertizes for one of its flagship courses on China: “There is nothing more important in the early 21st century than learning more about China”. It is not a mere discourse, it is a commitment.

Deep Intellectual Lethargy

On the other hand, what expertise does China have on France? How many Chinese students have gone through our universities and interacted extensively with French society? How many have completed their doctorate in France on French subjects? Tens of thousands for the first, hundreds for the second. Most have returned to China and brought to their country, in addition to genuine experts, an extraordinary pool of knowledge about France. How many French students have studied in China? How many have completed doctorates on Chinese subjects, with a double linguistic and disciplinary expertise?

China represents one of the most pressing challenges of the present time. French universities are still caught in a deep intellectual lethargy, at a time when it should be recruiting specialists in China in large numbers in its departments of social sciences. Short of bridging the abyssal gap with American universities, it is imperative to at least keep pace with the major European universities in terms of expertise on China. It is also urgent that the Ministry of Higher Education and Research mobilizes the financial means, as in Germany (which has invested 24 million euros), in order to equip French research with the positions and resources necessary to ensure the development of strong and lasting expertise on China in France.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Christian Henriot (February 7, 2023). French universities remain hermetic to China. Blog Virtual Shanghai. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from

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