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Editorial: It’s not easy to see China from Europe: how does the place of knowledge production affect research on China?

Yunpeng Zhang et Chris Kesteloot

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Chinese researchers in Belgium

  • 1 This is not an insignificant number. In 2023, Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen (FWO), th (...)

1After the Open Door Policy launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Chinese researchers went abroad to “catch up” with science and technology development that had fallen behind in their country because of the constraints of the planned economy and the lack of internal spurs for innovation. Since then, many Chinese citizens have pursued further studies outside China. Despite so, the size of researchers trained outside China, especially at the doctoral level, remained small until the early 2000s. In 2007, China Scholarship Council (CSC) introduced various schemes to encourage Chinese citizens to pursue (post)doctoral research outside China. This has boosted the numbers of (post)doctoral researchers doing research outside China. Under various schemes, thousands of Chinese researchers are sponsored to do their research abroad every year. With two world top-100 universities, Belgium has become an important destination for researchers seeking CSC scholarships. For the 2024 competition, for instance, Ghent University and KU Leuven each offered to host 50 doctoral researchers from China1.

2This Chinese presence in Belgian academia also developed in Geography. The first Chinese PhD in Belgium was successfully defended at KU Leuven in 1993. The subject was the urbanization process in China since 1949. In his preface, the author states “… under the slogan ‘learning from the Western countries for their advanced science and technology’, many theories of social sciences have been copied from the developed countries to tackle the problems in China even without identifying their limitations and shortcomings in theory and practice. … I came … to start my Ph.D. program just under such a background of social sciences development in China. The motivation was so plain at that moment – learning from the Western experiences and their advanced theories in urban studies to serve the needs of urban development in China” (Qin, 1993, pp.i-ii). After three years of doing so in difficult conditions – nobody in the institute knew how to give appropriate supervision to a Chinese researcher working on a topic about his own country, he “… gradually realized that my initial attempts to use the urban experiences of the West as the model for China’s urban development is very naïve. Comparisons of the different urban experiences between China and the developed countries in their respective historical background within the same process of international capital production wake me up from the dream of simply borrowing Western urban theories to Chinese practices” (Qin, 1993, p.iii). After a supervisor change, his PhD shifted from the study of theories about the western world to dependency and world system theory and the study of socialist development to make sense of 40 years of Chinese urbanization. This pioneering experience unveiled tensions and problems that still may arise for present Chinese researchers working on their own country in Europe: marginal positions in local research teams, difficulties to position their research on China in the western-centric knowledge space, personal questioning about the meaning of the work and its usefulness for Chinese society, and behind all this, worries over adapting to different research cultures and thrive in western academia, feeling of being unable to explain one’s own ideas in a foreign language that resonates and holds significance for western knowledge consumers. Luckily, these problems are frequently overcome, but it is hard to imagine that they do not influence the nature and quality of the results of the research performed by Chinese scholars in Belgium.

  • 2 Belgeo publishes on a regular basis the list of PhD theses in Geography defended at the Belgian uni (...)
  • 3 Figures compiled in March 2024.
  • 4 The geography degree in Ghent also offers an option in geomatics.

3Today, a sizable group of Chinese doctoral and post-doctoral researchers work in the Geography departments of Belgian universities2, mostly in the Dutch-speaking universities. Indeed, the use of English is less frequent in the French-speaking universities, implying a double language barrier for Chinese researchers as they also develop considerable efforts in improving their academic English. The largest number of Chinese researchers (41) is hosted by Ghent University3 where the staff developed strong institutional links with Chinese universities, among which the Sino-Belgian Joint Laboratory for Geo-Information and the recent appointment of a GIS professor of Chinese origin. Most Ghent based Chinese researchers work on GIS4 and transport network related topics from a technological and quantitative perspective. Some of this research is even unrelated to China.
The KU Leuven Division of Geography and Tourism also continuously attracts Chinese researchers (presently 5), thanks to the university’s internationalization efforts. Some of them work on geomorphological topics, but most on political economic and political ecological issues centred on Chinese urban and rural places. The presence of Chinese scholars in the other geography departments in Belgium is rather sporadic.

A reflexive turn

4The call for papers of this Belgeo issue focused on the following questions: how and to what extent does studying China within the context of Belgian academia influence the process and outcomes of knowledge production? How does knowledge produced through transnational exchanges and by researchers straddling different spaces affect the researchers involved, both in research and teaching? How does this affect their aspirations, approaches and conceptions of geography?

5Not surprisingly, but nevertheless disappointingly, no response was received from the present or previous Ghent researchers. All contributions by Belgium-based researchers are from KU Leuven and ULB (French-speaking university of Brussels), employing social geographical and/or anthropological qualitative approaches. Apparently, GIS and quantitative research, as well as physical geography are perceived as producing universal knowledge that is unbiased by the conditions in which they are produced, notwithstanding the increasing evidence that what knowledge is produced and how it is produced also depends on the place where it is produced (Livingstone, 2003). Asking the same research questions about a precise place or region in the world will result in different outcomes depending on where one is performing the research.

6With the reflexive turn, the geographies of knowledge and knowledge production have become key concerns for researchers aware of power hierarchies in and outside academia. Practising research reflexively calls on researchers to introspect how their shifting positions in time and space affect knowledge production and knowledge produced (England, 1994; Rose, 1997). Haraway’s concept of situated knowledge (1988), originally conceived to question (white, male) scientific objectivity, should also be applied to geographical differences. In Haraway’s view (1988, p. 587), this is “a key exercise in grounding knowledge”. It is a both ethically and politically significant task, as it highlights relations of power and domination in knowledge production and contributes to fighting against injustice inflicted through representations of others. Part of this reflexive exercise is to think about the geographies of knowledge production. Cheskin and Jašina‐Schäfer (2022, p. 1044) called for a relational area study, i.e., one that considers in a comparative, reflexive and dialectic way the relations between the places of knowledge production and those that are studied.

7Such an exercise, as we believe, is not only important to better understand China beyond established tropes but also to reveal the strengths and weaknesses in the ways geographical research of China is practised in Belgian academia and beyond.

Constructing China: geographies, translations and privileges

8This issue comprises seven articles. The first five articles respond explicitly to the call for papers with knowledge production practices and the implications for understanding China from Belgium. The remaining two articles provide an in-depth analysis of migration and housing development in two Chinese cities, offering additional examples of how following established understandings of Chinese state and society would prevent us from understanding the complex state politics and state-society relations in China. Collectively, the contributors to this special issue highlight the necessity and urgency of transparentising the production of knowledge about China and the positioning of China in Belgian/European knowledge landscape.

9The field sites about which knowledge is generated in the contributions of this issue vary from cities and rural areas in China that are off the maps of the existing China studies scholarship to Congo, testifying to the plural geographies and diversities of the industry of China studies (broadly defined as any research related to China). Both Shujing Liu and Renhao Yang pursued their PhD research in land and rural reforms in China at KU Leuven and both now work in Chinese higher education institutions. Comparing their research and working experiences in both countries, they highlighted how distinctive research cultures in China and Belgium affected their framing the research problems for readers in different countries, their choices of conceptual and methodological approaches, and their funding strategies. Although all research is inevitably affected by the interests of funders and responds to societal challenges prioritised differently in different places, both authors noted that political influence is stronger in China and that research in China tends to be more policy-driven, differing from more theory-driven research practices that they experienced in Belgium (see also Qian & Zhang, 2022).

10With a shared interest in rural transformations, Feng’s work on Chongming (a rural island in the Yangtze delta, incorporated in the Shanghai municipality) is more concerned with the rural-urban relations and the relations of power and domination. She revealed that her understanding of everyday resistance of her interlocutors against management projects was influenced by her own struggles with dominant western-centric lenses that have been used to filter knowledge of China, and by her experiences of defending herself, a self-funded doctoral researcher with limited rights but obliged to contribute free services of the same hours as a fully funded doctoral researcher at KU Leuven. Her work thus attests to how the self of the researcher is an invaluable source of knowledge. Domination and everyday resistance are not simply observed “out there” in China; but are lived through her own bodily experiences as a Chinese researcher “in here”, a Flemish university.

11Her experiences find resonation in the reflection of Cai Chen. Unlike Liu, Yang and Feng, whose work focuses on socio-spatial processes within China, Chen studied Chinese emigrants and their experiences in Congo. As a migrant researcher in Belgium and Congo, Chen turned to his own border-crossing experiences and revealed how researchers’ mobility is unevenly constrained in the globalised academia (not only by border control regimes but also by class divides) and the implications for field research and career opportunities. He also discussed how he was positioned by participants in the field and how such positioning affected his interactions with Chinese and Congolese in the field.

12To some extent, Chen may be considered as what Fan Xiao might call a “path-breaking” researcher in the sense that Congo may be a comfortable place for Belgium-based researchers but out of the comfortable zones of most researchers trained in China. Analysing publications on China produced by Belgium-based researchers, Xiao noticed path-dependency in knowledge production, despite marked differences in academic cultures and training that are supposedly to be conducive to pushing the knowledge boundaries. According to Xiao, the primary reason is the pressure of a highly competitive academic labour market in China, since most researchers trained in Belgium would eventually look for jobs back in China (the challenges to obtain senior academic positions in a de facto gendered and racialised academic labour market in Belgium in shaping their career aspirations ought not to be downplayed). As such, despite that their research is being conducted outside China, they cannot completely escape evaluation matrixes (e.g., numbers of publications, citations, and impact factors) adopted by employers back in China, and therefore, they practise research with a practical aim to boost their outputs expediently and increase their chances in the Chinese academia. Staying close to what they have already studied is convenient and rational.

13What Xiao does not mention, but has been hinted by other contributors to this special issue is the hierarchies and politics in producing legitimate knowledge about China from outside China. At a first glance, the bar to study Chinese society and Chinese people is set very high. It requires considerable investments in time and money to acquire the knowledge of mandarin Chinese, let alone various dialects. Chinese speakers seemingly have an advantage to access research participants in or from China. The challenge for them is to translate this knowledge for non-Chinese speaking consumers. By translation, we are not simply concerned with the linguistic exercise of turning Chinese into English, French, Dutch or any other language for dissemination. This is a challenging task since finding meaning-equivalence is often difficult (see more discussions in Müller, 2007); yet it is a prerequisite to survive and thrive in the globalised academia.

14What we are concerned about is how knowledge generated in and about China is made relevant and legitimate here in Flanders, Belgium or Europe in general. There are at least two issues involved. The first relates to the dominant frames used to study and teach about China. Similar to the remarks made by Cheskin and Jašina‐Schäfer (2022, p. 1044) on Russian studies, students of China studies cannot escape the controlling binary of democracy versus authoritarianism when discussing Chinese politics. For researchers working on topics related to China’s domestic migration, as Cinzia Losavio discussed in her contribution to this special issue, hukou – the household registration system – remains the dominant preferred lens. This is not to say that these established notions and theories cease to matter. Nor is our intent to throw babies out with the bathwater or argue for China exceptionalism. Our concern is the risk of those frames in controlling and narrowing the visions of researchers, rendering other processes and dynamics invisible. As both Cinzia Losavio and Danyang Li have demonstrated in their work on the housing policies and housing practices of migrants, for instance, local governments selectively include or exclude some migrants, despite the call of the central government for a more inclusive form of urbanisation. This messiness and complexity of Chinese state politics and state-society relations would be lost if adopting a coherent view of the Chinese state or simply focussing on hukou. On a more practical level, for researchers who prefer to stay clear of these frames, the bigger concern is that their work is often considered as significantly flawed. Or, they have to spend time and use limited spaces to explain why they opt not to use those frames.

15Secondly, and relatedly, the knowledge space in social sciences has long been dominated by researchers based in, or originating from, Europe and North America. Not only do their research interests often set the research agendas, but knowledge produced by them on the basis of European or North American contexts is often deemed universal rather than region-specific (Müller, 2021). Positioning research on China and translating knowledges of China vis-à-vis this body of work contradictorily reinforces this literature as the frame of reference and reduce China to an export site of knowledge generated in here.

  • 5 The Belgian French-speaking universities do not offer full bachelor and master programs in Chinese (...)
  • 6 See Standaert (2023) for the history of sinology in Belgium. Sinology refers to the study of ancien (...)
  • 7 Only 11 new students enrolled in Chinese Studies in Leuven and 22 in Ghent (figures for the academi (...)

16In the Belgian academic world, the Chinese Studies research and teaching units produce the experts to deepen the understanding of China’s complex realities. They are in privileged positions to translate knowledge of China for the Belgian audience. In a sense, they are the gatekeepers to China studies. Their preferences and worldviews can filter knowledge produced about China. The two main Chinese Studies units responsible for teaching and researching with an explicit regional focus on China in Belgium are at KU Leuven and Ghent University5. They are small in size, with 4 and 3 tenured or tenure-tracked professors respectively, and none of Chinese origin. For historical reasons, their work involves mostly linguistics, philosophy, history and religions6. But the growing importance of China in the world requires to increase research and teaching on present-day Chinese society. Not only the historical focus on humanities, but also the limited resources and waning interest in China Studies7 are hampering this much needed development of expertise on contemporary China.

17If we broaden the circle of China-related academic work, by considering other social sciences offering courses related to China in the Chinese Studies programs (history, sociology, anthropology, economic development and until recently geography), as well as staff members in the PhD supervisory committees and juries of Chinese PhD candidates working on China in these disciplines, who similarly occupy privileged positions in the knowledge space, the barrier to entry into this industry of China studies is surprisingly low, in the sense that language competency in Chinese Mandarin or regional expertise in China is not always required. This is a consequence of the considerable time investment in learning the language while their work on China is only a side task for most of them. But the result is that their expertise often ignores work done by colleagues who publish in Chinese.

18The privileges of those experts in Belgian academia are further bolstered by funding agencies’ requirements. Both CSC and FWO make the alignment of the applicants with the profiles of the supervisors and their teams an important evaluation criterion. Although this arrangement ensures that applicants can receive the support needed and that public monies are well spent, it also limits the scope of possible topics, approaches and methods.

19When it comes to non-academic knowledge practices about Chinese present-day realities, the bar to gain authority is even lower. In 2019, Cinema Zed in Leuven (known for its good selections of independent films and documentaries) aired Buddha in Africa, a documentary advertised to provoke thoughts on China’s growing influence and its soft power in Africa. Following the screening, Professor Benoît Henriet (professor of contemporary history based at Vrij Universiteit Brussels) and Ching Lin Pang (professor of Anthropology based at KU Leuven at the time) were invited to comment and address questions from the audiences. The moderator and Professor Henriet clearly set the tone of the discussions and likened the religious groups featured in the documentary to religious mission groups in Europe’s colonial history. The documentary then was claimed to be an evidence of Chinese colonialism through religion. As one of the few Chinese speakers in the room, Professor Pang immediately pointed out inaccurate and misleading translations used in the documentary: whilst speaking Chinese, the religious group was in fact from Taiwan and was active in East Asia except mainland China, for well-known geopolitical complexities and the Communist Party’s ambivalence towards religions. However, her crucial intervention unfortunately did not compel the moderator and Professor Henriet to reevaluate their comments, nor did it resonate with a predominately white audience in the theatre. The discussions continued revolving around the widely circulating discourses on new forms of colonialism invested by the Chinese state, as if intentional linguistic mistakes in the documentary were irrelevant.

20The anecdote is recounted in length because it underscores the challenges faced by researchers in China studies as the contributors of this special issue experienced here in Belgium and Europe: what is academically important is often not relevant for jurors viewing from Europe. More frustratingly, the geopolitical lens through which China is often viewed in Europe, focusing on perceived political and economic threats, further complicates the matter. The inflation of security discourses in policies and mass media carries implications for universities. It has created a hostile environment for researchers working on China-related topics or collaborating with Chinese researchers. Within institutions like KU Leuven, suspicion of Chinese students and researchers being potential agents of espionage or a security threat, contributes to this fraught environment8. Although published in Dutch, Veto, the student-run magazine, also contributes to invoking fear and anxiety. The cartoons used – KU Leuven on the dining table of Xi Jinping or a frightening dragon clawing over KU Leuven’s central library tower9 – perpetuate the stereotypes and anxiety about China. To be path-breaking in China studies would require researchers to challenge prevailing narratives and stereotypes, which at times entails accepting the risk of being labelled as China sympathisers or China apologists.

More knowledge about China needed, but how?

21Within the political circles in Belgium and Europe in general, there is a consensus that more knowledge about China is needed, given the important roles of China in many global challenges. The contributions to this special issue highlight significant deficits in knowledge about China and in the knowledge production process. The challenges are not limited to China studies. Researchers working on topics in places outside Europe or North America face similar problems. The question is, what to do about it?

22One way to bridge the knowledge gap is to embrace and proactively practise what Defoort et al. (2021) called multi-regionalism in research and education. This entails more than broaden up the geographical scope of knowledge incorporated in the curriculums that train next generations of decision-makers and researchers. It also means to truly learn with and from other regions, that is, to provincialize knowledge generated about Europe or North America, to suspend and unlearn entrenched categories and assumptions about other regions, to develop hybrid, relational understanding that combine perspectives from inside out and outside in, to resist the temptation of normalise differences, and to use this knowledge about other regions to enrich understandings of regions and cultures of our own. To this end, it is imperative to acquire knowledge of the language and culture of the region in question. These arguments can certainly be extended to China Studies. To develop informed knowledge about China, it is critical to disrupt the existing structures of interests and powers in the knowledge industry of China studies and cultivate an environment that is conductive to learning with and from China. We hope this issue can stimulate further discussions on knowledge produced about China.

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CHESKIN A. & JAŠINA-SCHÄFER A. (2022), “Relational Area Studies: Russia and Geographies of Knowledge”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 47, 4, pp. 1044-1057.

Defoort C., Major P., Coomans T., Jeong R., Gruber J., Kesteloot C., Nova Blanco J., Pasture P. & Salazar N. (2021), Let Universities Be Multiregional: The Case at KU Leuven, Metaforum KU Leuven.

England K. V. L. (1994), “Getting Personal - Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research”, Professional Geographer, 46, 1, pp. 80-89.

Haraway D. (1988), “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies,14, 3, pp. 575-599.

Livingstone D. (2003), Putting Science in Its Place. Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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1 This is not an insignificant number. In 2023, Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen (FWO), the main funder for researchers based in Flemish universities and research institutions, offered about 500 PhD scholarships.

2 Belgeo publishes on a regular basis the list of PhD theses in Geography defended at the Belgian universities. Between 1993 and 2020, the last year for which the list is available, 35 Chinese researchers successfully defended their thesis.

3 Figures compiled in March 2024.

4 The geography degree in Ghent also offers an option in geomatics.

5 The Belgian French-speaking universities do not offer full bachelor and master programs in Chinese Studies. Courses on Chinese language and society are integrated in other programs. A minor in Chinese language at bachelor level is offered at the Université Catholique de Louvain, but no master program. Specialisation in Chinese Studies at master level but without a corresponding bachelor is available in Brussels and Liège. The bachelor in ancient languages and literatures: Oriental studies has been recently closed in Liège.

6 See Standaert (2023) for the history of sinology in Belgium. Sinology refers to the study of ancient Chinese texts and was developed in Europe mainly by China missionaries. In contrast China studies concern much more the social sciences applied to contemporary China. At the KU Leuven, Sinology was replaced by Chinese Studies in 2019.

7 Only 11 new students enrolled in Chinese Studies in Leuven and 22 in Ghent (figures for the academic year 2023-24). The Bachelor in Sinology at the KU Leuven reached a maximum of 78 new students in 2005-06. Comparable figures for Ghent are not available as the Bachelor is a track within the Bachelor in Oriental Languages and Cultures, offering three other tracks as well.



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Yunpeng Zhang et Chris Kesteloot, « Editorial: It’s not easy to see China from Europe: how does the place of knowledge production affect research on China? »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2023, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Yunpeng Zhang

School of Architecture, Planning and Environment Policy, University College Dublin
ORCID 0000-0003-0624-4199

Chris Kesteloot

Division of Geography and Tourism, KU Leuven
ORCID 0000-0002-4305-096X

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