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As a Chinese researcher in Belgium: Path dependence or path-breaking?

Fan Xiao


Les liens extra-régionaux contribuent à l'innovation. Toutefois, les études détaillées sur les innovateurs font défaut dans la littérature. Une question se pose : comment un lien extra-régional nouvellement établi affecte-t-il la production de connaissances ? Pour répondre à cette question, en tant que chercheur chinois en Belgique, j'utilise ma propre expérience pour explorer les moteurs des types d'innovation dans cet essai. Les résultats montrent que, dans une certaine mesure, l'utilitarisme et le néolibéralisme contribuent à lier la production de connaissances à des « sentiers de dépendance », alors que le faible enracinement local dans un pays peut conduire à une rupture de ce « sentier ». Ensuite, je montre que je crains que la dépendance au « sentier » ne conduise à une (re)colonisation de la production de connaissances dans le monde entier. J'espère que cet essai pourra élargir notre compréhension du processus d'innovation microscopique.

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Notes de l’auteur

The research was supported by the China Scholarship Council under Grant 202204910283.

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1According to the Schumpeterian framework, innovation is successful new combinations of old ideas (Schumpeter, 1939; Neffke et al., 2011). To access strange old ideas, innovation actors need to interact with each other with different knowledge backgrounds, such as researchers from remote areas. This process, that is, interaction, brings two kinds of knowledge: explicit and tacit. The former comes from remote communication, like online meetings, and the latter from face-to-face contact (Bathelt et al., 2004). An external shock efficiently promotes knowledge production (Xiao et al., 2022). Traditionally, research on innovation is based on knowledge production function with regional materials, which provides little detail on the thoughts of innovators (e.g., Lao et al., 2021; Lin et al., 2007; Roper and Hewitt-Dundas, 2015). As a Chinese researcher in Belgium, I live on the boundary between academia in Belgium and China. Therefore, I believe my experience and other researchers’ experience can offer a complementary lens to understanding knowledge production.

2There are two aspects to understand innovation evolution: path dependence and path-breaking (Xiao and Lin, 2021; Zhu et al., 2017). Knowledge production is a branching process following the law of path dependence, meaning that innovators tend to produce new related knowledge. The reason is that actors in a similar field or with similar knowledge bases will communicate efficiently. However, over-cognitive proximity leads to the embarrassment of path lock-in, that is, “nothing new.” A possible way for innovators to unlock the rigid path is to establish extra-regional linkages. In fact, as an external factor, many studies have verified the power of extra-regional linkages (e.g., Li & Bathelt, 2017; Martin and Sunley, 2006; Xiao et al., 2020). Nevertheless, the working mechanism of extra-regional linkages has spatial-temporal heterogeneity, meaning it differs under different environments. In this context, the research gap is missing knowledge about how linkages with Belgium influence the knowledge production of Chinese researchers.

Hot geographical topics of China as background: Academia in Belgium vs. China

To browse what kind of knowledge about China has been produced by geographers from Belgium and China, I have collected information from the Web of Science (WOS), with the codes of “((AD=(Belgium)) AND TS=(Geography)) AND TS=(China or Chinese)” and “((AD=(China)) AND TS=(Geography)) AND TS=(China or Chinese).” According to WOS Advanced Search Query Builder (​wos/​alldb/​advanced-search), “AD” means “address” and “TS” means “topic”. Papers on “geographical topics” then refer to papers with the term “geography” in the title, abstract or indexing. The former contains 42 articles, and the latter contains 1,830 articles. With the help of CiteSpace software (​), the geographical topics of China from Belgium and Chinese academic institutions are visualized in Figure 1 and Figure 2, respectively.

  • 1 I acknowledge that the existence of extensive qualitative and quantitative research at both intra-r (...)

3The lessons we learn are that the research topics from both Belgium and China are highly overlapping. To begin with, note that spatial patterns and influencing factors are the most common topics wildly pursued by Chinese geographical scholars. It shows again in Belgium’s academia, although sometimes in the form of networks. Second, as for the research scale, both focus on the macroscale. To some extent, macro-scale studies, unlike micro-scale studies, are often characterized by a data-driven approach. For example, research on inter-city interactions, such as daily mobility, corporate networks, and air transport networks, is closely tied to urban dynamics, thus emphasizing a reliance on data-driven methodologies. Compared to the Anglophone world, “Chinese geographers are dexterous in using quantitative methods and analytics to objectively model spatial relations, topographic characteristics, and geographical mobilities at the macroscale” and focus less on “critical theoretical paradigms and debates” (Qian and Zhang, 2022, p. 31). In this context, the geographical topics of China from Belgium academia match Chinese geographers’ preferences. Therefore, it seems that knowledge production in Belgium is depending on what the Chinese researchers learned in China1.

Figure 1. The geographical topics of China: Belgium academia.

Figure 1. The geographical topics of China: Belgium academia.

Figure 2. The geographical topics of China: Chinese academia.

Figure 2. The geographical topics of China: Chinese academia.
  • 2 Note that a part of the articles is published by non-Chinese researchers. This essay focuses on Chi (...)

4Considering nearly half of the above 42 articles are published by the group of Ben Derudder (e.g., Liu et al., 2016), I further collected information to show China as seen from Germany, also from the WOS, with the codes of “((AD=(Germany)) AND TS=(Geography)) AND TS=(China or Chinese).” The results with 104 articles are shown in Figure 3. As research topics are highly overlapping with the publications of Chinese economic geographers, path dependence in knowledge production shows again in another European country. Nevertheless, China is still different between Belgium and Germany, which indicates the importance of types of extra-regional linkages. In a nutshell, path dependence and path-breaking co-emerge in the knowledge production of Chinese researchers2. A question arises: if so, why?

Figure 3. The geographical topics of China: German academia.

Figure 3. The geographical topics of China: German academia.

Knowledge production under utilitarianism: Power of Impact Factor (IF)

5A key to understanding Chinese behavior is utilitarianism. For example, in the context of “land-speculation-oriented local entrepreneurialism,” new urbanization projects in China face the risk of being slogans aimed to achieve designated purposes beyond their original visions, “as the ‘promotion tournament model’ prompted local officials to focus on measurable financial performance during their term of office while ignoring the long-term side effects of their policies” (Zhou et al., 2023, p. 187). The “promotion tournament model” is a form of high-powered incentives in which the promotion of local government officials relies heavily on measurable economic indicators; its main problem lies in the lack of representation of residents’ preferences, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) indicators substituting for such preferences (Zhou, 2007). Analogously, I extend the “promotion tournament model” to explore the power of the Impact Factor (IF) for Chinese researchers.

6In Chinese academia, IF is one of the most important measurements of academic success. To some extent, the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) quartile (i.e., Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4) based on IF, or the Chinese Academy of Sciences JCR (Journal Citation Reports) Journal Division, also based on IF, will label scholars, further affecting their job-seeking and career promotion. The rankings of journals are clear for most Chinese geographers: Nature and Science as first class, Nature research journals, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) as second class, followed by Q1 journals as third class. Under this discourse, the most efficient way to get a promotion is to publish papers in journals with a high volume of publications, such as predatory journals. Caused by economies of scale, these journals typically achieve a not bad IF. Some scholars without research interests have applied the strategy of accessing Q1 at the lowest cost, in order to secure their future career. They typically select research topics that are popular in high IF journal.

7This discourse is ubiquitous in Chinese society. A question often faced by a Chinese scholar studying abroad is: “How many papers did you publish during your study abroad?” Moreover, members of Chinese academia will consider that the scholar hasn’t learned anything if no or only few papers have been published. In addition, the discourse is delivered to various sectors such as academia, industry, and policymaking circles because the point that they are concerned about is the titles of scholars, which are highly related to IF.

8According to the above rule, it is hard for a Chinese researcher to acquire transactions. For example, more researchers are using qualitative approaches in Belgium than in China, but Chinese researchers in Belgium’s academia keep their passions in number. It is hard for an impatient scholar to obtain and apply the time-consuming approach, which makes him or her jump slower than other scholars in China. Therefore, the research design is mainly based on the previous knowledge base of the scholar, which has been well-shaped in China. Consequently, on the one hand, some researchers are exploited and oppressed by the above rule; on the other hand, they constantly reinforce the power of the rule.

9From a macro perspective, in neoliberalism, private sector institutions like WOS maintain the power of designing rules, and claim that knowledge production worldwide has been well-designed (Harvey, 2016). There is no significant gap between academia in Belgium and China, especially after the 1980s. Scholars worldwide have contributed to related topics, although in different presenting ways. Furthermore, to some extent, Chinese researchers join Belgian research groups with research scopes close to their own interests, which potentially contributes to path dependence. Therefore, path dependence plays a vital role in the knowledge production of a Chinese researcher, even if he or she is in Belgium.

10What makes knowledge production path-breaking? The first thing we should know is the different working styles between Belgium and China, depending on different groups. In general, geographical innovation derives often from individual interests in Belgium and group leaders in China. In this context, researchers in Belgium are comparatively free to avoid hierarchical suggestions from group leaders. Then he or she can write a proposal based on his or her interests and is eager to do the research, although facing high risks of failure. The more interested you are in the research, the less utilitarian you are. Also, it means that more individual innovators will enter the regional pool, contributing to more diverse innovation.

11Another factor shaping path-breaking is the proximity of different research resources. For example, Chinese students at KU Leuven can access lessons containing qualitative methods (e.g., interviews) more quickly than quantitative methods. In addition, they are surrounded by people using qualitative methods. In this setting, Chinese researchers obtain the path-breaking turn unconsciously.

12Furthermore, from a macro perspective, attitude towards critical thinking differs between academia in the two countries, although with intra-spatial heterogeneity. Most star scholars with government certification in China (e.g., academician, recipients of the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars, recipients of the Chang Jiang Scholars Program, recipients of the National Plan for the Special Support for Top-notch Talents) hope that their theoretical ideas will be passed on. The point is that the career of infant scholars is related to whether they are the heirs of star scholars. In other words, infant scholars who copy and develop star scholars’ thoughts will have a bright future in China. Indeed, it promotes path-dependent innovation, as the young researchers follow a specific innovation trajectory. Relieved from the above concerns, Chinese researchers in Belgium have chances to challenge old theories (e.g., proposed by their advisors). To my knowledge, some prominent international scholars in the Global North are more open-minded about the challenges than in the Global South, which has led to several significant turns in geographic thought. For instance, American geographers Richard Hartshorne and his former student William Bunge represent contrasting perspectives. Hartshorne, renowned for his work The Nature of Geography, argued against the possibility of making law-like statements about regions. In contrast, Bunge embraced an anti-Hartshornian approach, pioneering the spatial-quantitative revolution and advocating for geography to become a science of spatial relations in his influential work Theoretical Geography (1962). Bunge’s subsequent book Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution (1971) laid the groundwork for radical geography. Despite their differences, their 17-year correspondence illustrates the dynamic exchange of ideas within the discipline (Barnes, 2016; 2018).

Contributing to decolonial turn? Rethinking the core of innovation space

13The above discussion shows there is more path dependence than path-breaking in the knowledge production of Chinese researchers in Belgium. Nowadays, the Global North is the core of the knowledge production space, and the Global South is in the periphery, following the colonial structures. Therefore, a question arises: how do Chinese researchers in Belgium affect the innovation space?

14Schwanen (2018) has used three words, namely transfer, mobility, and worlding, to discuss “whether a post/decolonial turn is occurring in geographical scholarship on transport.” Transfer denotes a situation in which the Global North’s knowledge is deployed in unchanged form to make sense of the geographical aspects of the Global South; Mobility refers to the case that knowledge originating from developed countries has been changed or adapted to fit the local circumstances of developing countries; Worlding means new knowledge from the Global South challenges existing structures (Schwanen, 2018).

15Transfer and mobility are happening as we are using Western worldviews, concepts, theories, methods, and research practices to understand Chinese issues. Before coming to Belgium, most of us applied Western knowledge produced during the quantitative revolution to deal with Chinese topics (e.g., spatial patterns and influencing factors of different elements). In Belgium, we might use newly learned knowledge to discuss the same or new issues. However, worlding is hard under utilitarianism and neoliberalism, as it is not a rational promotion method that doesn’t follow the “law of minimum effort”. Worlding necessitates that our research in China elicits new, inherently site-specific worldviews, theories, concepts, methods, or research practices that can in some way speak back to Western paradigms. Indeed, as university geography in China is related to natural sciences rather than social sciences orientations and aims to produce applied knowledge rather than critical/reflexive knowledge, what we learn in China are theoretical perspectives and methodologies absorbed from the Anglophone academia (Qian and Zhang, 2022). In this context, to achieve worlding, we might put a lot of effort into learning something new (at the edge of the knowledge production space) that is unrelated to our current stock of knowledge, and then run the risk of not being able to publish in international or national journals. In addition, worlding requires purely local knowledge, and doing field investigations is restricted for researchers by the remoteness of China from Belgium.

  • 3 Note that geography in China is conceptualized as applied knowledge (Qian and Zhang, 2022). In this (...)
  • 4 I also acknowledge that teamwork ensures research success. Many young Chinese researchers hope for (...)
  • 5 I give this example because it seems irrelevant to Western paradigms.

16Living on the boundary between academia in Belgium and China, scholars aiming for disruptive innovation can access rooted local knowledge of two countries and struggle for worlding. As newcomers with comparatively weak local embeddedness, we face fewer restrictions (e.g., in terms of academic paradigms) when advancing innovation than innovators in Belgium or China (Larsson et al., 2017). For example, in China, young researchers (e.g., PhD candidates, postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors) often integrate and interact within hierarchical teams supervised by one or more directors. To ensure the success of the team (including the young researchers themselves), the directors usually highly recommend a research topic to the young researchers3. In this case, the young researchers don’t have time to do potential super-innovative research when their research interests do not match the team’s and run counter to existing academic paradigms4. Also, a geographical shift might typically create various innovation possibilities (e.g., through accessing different knowledge). In this context, I believe Chinese researchers in Belgium will soon contribute to the decolonial turn, producing a more diverse innovation space. For example, can we produce new knowledge based on the oriental philosophy, I Ching (aka, The Book of Changes)? Unlike Western philosophy, the I Ching is the progenitor of Eastern philosophical systems. It comprehends and grasps the world from a holistic perspective, viewing humans and nature as an interrelated organic whole, known as “unity of heaven and humanity”5. What might be another alternative?

Conclusions and discussions

17Based on my own and surrounding experience, I write this essay to demonstrate how Chinese researchers produce geographical knowledge about China in Belgium. Utilitarianism and neoliberalism can lead to path dependency in knowledge production. However, a necessary background we should further point out is the different development stages between Belgium and China. Regarding innovation, China is in the catching-up phase, which promotes the rooting and germination of utilitarianism. It makes sense to support practical research on purpose, and colleagues who purely pursue financial interests will produce lots of project-oriented knowledge. The transfer of these discourses contributes to Chinese researchers’ path dependence, even in Belgium. However, in my opinion, disruptive innovation highly requires personal academic freedom. Based on personal interests, I will be motivated to proceed with my research. Without restrictions, I will have to be brave enough to express my critical thinking. Then, path-breaking occurs.

  • 6 Many team leaders are not concerned about “pure research” but only care about individuals’ position (...)
  • 7 Given the economies of scale of IF, where the larger the number of publications in a journal, the h (...)

18It highlights some of the challenges confronting the Chinese academic system, particularly its heavy reliance on SCI/SSCI publications as the primary gauge of academic success. This narrow focus has led to distortions in performance evaluation and goals among leaders in Chinese universities and research institutes. SCI/SSCI publications often intertwine with individuals’ official positions and influence within the academic hierarchy. Consequently, team leaders with numerous SCI/SSCI publications may restrict the academic freedom of their team members to ensure high paper output6. In contrast, career progression standards in Belgium may prioritize diverse academic achievements, albeit including publications. Despite efforts by the Chinese government to broaden the range of indicators used to assess support, significant constraints persist. Culturally, China leans towards informal relationships compared to Belgium. In such a context, without clear evaluation metrics, academic corruption might thrive; that is, informal relationships always trump formal assessment when it comes to assessing personal performance. Therefore, I can agree with the idea of introducing more complex evaluation metrics (e.g., the h-index, i10-index and measures of international cooperation) to mitigate the utilitarianism often associated with a form of Anglo-Saxon imperialism in academia7. Furthermore, randomly selecting a subset of metrics from the database each year for evaluation could be another alternative. By introducing a more complex evaluation metric system, researchers would find it challenging to focus on seeking shortcuts, leading them to refocus on academic pursuits, thereby promoting genuine academic progress.

19Both academia and policymakers should be concerned about creating a diverse innovation landscape, as path dependence might lead to (re-)colonial turn. Here, I do not have conclusions but a question: After utilitarianism, should we never forget the original intention of doing research? For a young researcher at the beginning of an academic career, money and job security is not everything. Publishing low-quality papers in (predatory) journals with high IF often yields more reward for less effort, while those who conduct rigorous research may not receive adequate recognition. Therefore, in such a highly competitive environment, bearing in mind the principle of “bad paper drives out good” may inspire us to remain true to our original research intentions.

20In future research on knowledge production, two issues reflecting current research limitations merit exploration. First, the greater academic freedom in Belgium, attributed to factors such as academic culture, governance structure, funding mechanisms, and cultural norms, underscores the complexities of implementing Belgian academic elements in China due to cultural, political, and institutional disparities. These questions warrant further investigation. Second, the selected papers of Chinese researchers in Belgium indexed in the WOS only partially reflect their contributions. Many Chinese geographers in Belgium complete Ph.D. dissertations, and a comprehensive list of these dissertations would give a different picture from this essay, showing a greater emphasis on social geography and political ecology. In addition, many Chinese geographers in China publish their articles in English in journals focusing on the environment, energy, and health, such as Journal of Cleaner Production, Science of The Total Environment and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Based on the WOS algorithm and our codes, these articles are not classified within the field of geography. Therefore, it is recommended to conduct follow-up research using broader datasets such as ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, Scopus, and Google Scholar, along with advanced software tools.

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1 I acknowledge that the existence of extensive qualitative and quantitative research at both intra-regional and inter-regional scales provides a more comprehensive view. In the context of China and Europe, the “regional” scale is different.

2 Note that a part of the articles is published by non-Chinese researchers. This essay focuses on Chinese researchers.

3 Note that geography in China is conceptualized as applied knowledge (Qian and Zhang, 2022). In this context, the research topics proposed by the directors are generally relevant to China’s major needs, such as economic development and environmental protection, as they are more heavily funded by various government departments. In China, successfully applying for and receiving funding from government departments (e.g., National Natural Science Foundation of China) is an important criterion for researchers to secure tenure.

4 I also acknowledge that teamwork ensures research success. Many young Chinese researchers hope for directors to assign them research topics.

5 I give this example because it seems irrelevant to Western paradigms.

6 Many team leaders are not concerned about “pure research” but only care about individuals’ positions and power, with performance being measured by SCI/SSCI papers.

7 Given the economies of scale of IF, where the larger the number of publications in a journal, the higher its IF, due to self-citations by authors and journals themselves, I propose an immature indicator: dividing IF by the number of publications.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The geographical topics of China: Belgium academia.
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Titre Figure 2. The geographical topics of China: Chinese academia.
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Titre Figure 3. The geographical topics of China: German academia.
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Fan Xiao, « As a Chinese researcher in Belgium: Path dependence or path-breaking? »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2023, mis en ligne le 23 février 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fan Xiao

Key Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China; College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China ; Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Faculty of Sciences, DGES-IGEAT
ORCID 0000-0002-4934-3667

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