In any education system, academics are answerable to the government. Audits, form-filling and declaring their research agendas form a routine part in the life of an academic who is required to complete these administrative tasks. It is true that China is no exception. Administrative tasks form a significant part of the work schedule. The complicating factor for foreign scholars is that these forms need to be completed in Chinese. While this situation is understandable, it is also reasonable not to expect foreign academics in China to have sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language to be able to complete the forms themselves. Furthermore, online translation services are not reliable enough to ensure sufficient accuracy for this task, so the key question is: how does one cope with this difficulty?
Sources of help
There are several possible solutions. First, each large university employing foreign academics has an international department. All staff here the ability to write and read English fluently. For minor queries, it is certainly worth consulting this department. Furthermore, this department will prove essential to you in your time in China, since they are responsible for organising your residency visa. Secondly (and the most widely used option) is to enlist the services of one of your students in the process. Oftentimes, this can be done as a loose, quid pro quo arrangement, where students can request your assistance in applying for further study in overseas universities in exchange for assisting you with complicated forms in Chinese. Yet the wealthier and more organised universities in China will already have developed the infrastructure to enable foreign scholars to operate without hindrance. For example, I now have a secretary who assists me with all Chinese documentation, which certainly makes my life a lot easier.
It is also important to consider that the nature of the political relationship between universities and central government is significantly different in China compared to western universities – a system largely created by the completely different political processes and culture here. The most significant difference is that the presence of the political system is visible in each department – a situation created by the appointment of a Communist Party secretary for each academic department in the university. Possibly the most important thing to remember about this is that the Communist Party secretary for each department holds much more power than the department head or the dean. Although superficially their role is to ensure that the requirements of the central government are being adhered to, they are oftentimes the final link in a long administrative chain that need to give final approval to issues such as the granting of research funding and the agreement of your teaching syllabus. Indeed, it is the Communist Party secretary that can, if necessary, exercise his/her power to instruct a revision of your teaching syllabus although in my 5 years experience here, I have never been requested to change my teaching content, and neither, to my knowledge, have my colleagues.
It is also important to debunk certain myths that have surrounded teaching in China. One common myth, especially for historians and political scientists, surrounds the assumption that teaching western political thought and systems is off limits. This is not true. While it is not advisable (for obvious reasons) to walk around the streets claiming that democracy is better than Communism, the education system embraces the teaching of concepts from outside China, primarily for their value-added component. They can help Chinese people to see the cultural differences between the west and themselves, and thus understand better the different ways in which foreign countries operate and think. Moreover, it also helps students who have an idea to study overseas to gain a clearer understanding of the political, economic and social constructs of western countries before pursuing further study abroad. This is potentially the most useful contribution that foreign academics can provide for many Chinese students.
Teaching area and workload
Your teaching area and workload is determined by your department head. While this is often linked to your research expertise, you could also be asked to teach courses outside your particular area in order to increase the department’s choices of courses. Naturally, this requires significant additional time on your part, where you are required to devise a new course. For me, I was required to write four new courses to teach over two semesters. In the first academic year, I completed very little of my own research since much of my time was spent preparing my new teaching materials. Yet once these courses are constructed, it is worth making a request to your department head not to assign any additional teaching to you, so as to allow you more time for your research. Oftentimes, this is supported in the interest of increasing the department’s research prowess which is already provided by the presence of a foreign scholar. To help prepare these additional courses, universities will often provide additional funding for the purchase of books, printing costs and other sundry items with the aim of encouraging scholars to embrace the task of teaching. While this is granted on an application basis through your department head, it certainly will be helpful to your cause to cultivate a good working relationship with the Communist Party secretary, who is ultimately responsible for recommending your funding application to the university’s financial department.
Cultivate good relationships
Therefore, while it is true to say that the political system in China is different, and things follow different processes, the same rules of thumb generally apply as that in a western university setting. Cultivating good relationships with colleagues, especially the ones responsible for making decisions that affect your working patterns is important so as to ensure the best working environment for you. Also, if you clearly express your research ideas and aims to your department head, then he/she will provide the resources to help you succeed, including language assistance where possible. The inextricable link between politics and the university system in China is certainly more explicit than in the western university system, but managing this relationship effectively will undoubtedly help you have a much smoother life during your time working in the Chinese university system!
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