Researchers grapple with the tightened data landscape in China

Creativity can make up for lost access, but some gaps can’t be filled.
By Han Chen for RFA
Researchers grapple with the tightened data landscape in China
Illustration by Paul Nelson/RFA; Images by Adobe Stock

Until two years ago, Peter Irwin, a Washington D.C.-based researcher, was able to access Chinese court data to track the number of Uyghurs being sentenced to prison. But amid the international outcry over Beijing’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang, the local court stopped publishing such data.

Irwin was undeterred and pivoted his focus. It was a gradual process, he said, but he and his organization, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, took the time to adapt to the tighter data landscape. 

I think we can, and we found ways,” he said.

The work can still be impactful. For example, last summer, UHRP uncovered international travel companies that were still offering tours to Xinjiang despite widespread human rights violations there. Shortly thereafter, several companies suspended these tours.

In the diverse field of China research, Irwin’s experience has become more common. As China puts up more barriers around data, researchers all over the world increasingly have to grapple with how to work with less, but they are also coming to terms with the restrictions by discovering new tools or new research areas, according to interviews with analysts, activists and scholars from various disciplines.

Yet many researchers say that the paucity of data will warp global understanding of what is really going on in China.

“There is a growing gap between reality and perceptions when it comes to China,” said Martin Thorley, a senior analyst at Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “That also makes things difficult because regardless of how one approaches China, solid data is a good foundation.”

A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center is seen in Dabancheng, in China’s Xinjiang region, Sept. 4, 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A changed landscape

As Chinese President Xi Jinping rose to become the most powerful leader after Mao, national security has become a top priority in every aspect of governance

In 2017, the world was stunned by the revelations that more than a million Chinese Muslims had been sent to reeducation camps. In 2019, millions of Hong Kong residents hit the streets over a proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Thousands fled in the crackdown that followed. 

Meanwhile, U.S.-China relations plummeted, as policies by former U.S. president Donald Trump aimed at decoupling the world’s two largest economies launched a trade war.

These political events triggered more censorship from Beijing and reminded the Party leadership that certain data could be weaponized against them, said independent researcher Kai von Carnap.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020 severely disrupted travel to China, making in-person access all but impossible for years. As a result, maintaining data access remotely became even more crucial.

Independent researcher Kai von Carnap is an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and lab fellow at the Aletheia Research Institute. (Courtesy of Kai von Carnap)

Secrets and frustrations

Since COVID, von Carnap has turned to more digital tools to extract data from China, such as natural language processing, or NLP, a machine learning technology that interprets and manipulates human language. And one way he has used NLP is to analyze social media discourse in China, a task that otherwise could be overwhelming. 

Although he has not yet published this research, he pointed to examples from his former colleagues at German think tank MERICS, where they analyzed Chinese social media debates on topics such as AI chatbots, war in Ukraine and food security.

But like most people interviewed for this article, he declined to elaborate on his own methods for fear of losing more access. Another researcher described it as “a game of cat and mouse.” If their methodologies are made public, they worry about new access restrictions or technical measures to disable the workarounds. 

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Daria Impiombato, an analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, speaks at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2023. (Courtesy of Daria Impiombato)

Daria Impiombato, an analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI, also taps into Chinese social media regularly to explore topics like censorship, surveillance and propaganda, but she said that space has become much harder to navigate.

“It takes way longer to create a new (social media) profile. Sometimes it’s just not worth the hassle,” she said, referring to the account registration process. “It was very apparent from several years ago that more and more aspects of public life were becoming securitized and sensitive.”

The ways forward

Despite this, Impiombato said she’s mostly hopeful about the field, citing the growing public interest in China expertise and constantly evolving research methods. “In general there has been an incredible uptick in China research: more people involved, more grants, more organizations working on it,” she said.

Alex Colville, a researcher and database coordinator at China Media Project, agreed that there are opportunities to be found amid navigating the obstacles.

“I think we’re going to have to become more creative with the data we’re given,” Colville said. 

“Reading between the lines to uncover new policies from Beijing that lead to obvious problems down the line, or working past another hurdle in data access — I get excited by these challenges,” he said.

Alex Colville is a researcher and database coordinator at China Media Project. (China Media Project)

Sometimes, solutions can be ingenious, such as when Western media outlets measured the surge of COVID-related deaths in China in late 2022 by estimating the number of cars and people near crematoriums, Colville added.

Researchers agree, though, that the best way to study China is still to just be there, especially in areas that require extensive fieldwork, such as sociology and political economy. For some of them, traveling to China is again possible after borders were reopened last year.

Those who can’t are shifting to other areas of study. 

Rory Truex, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University who studies Chinese politics and authoritarianism, spent years researching the composition and policymaking process of the National People’s Congress. 

He hasn’t been able to go back to China, so more recently, he has shifted his work to survey research on topics such as political opinions. He is also spending more time studying what he called “overseas issues,” including the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which has been criticized for projecting Beijing’s ideological influence abroad.

For independent researcher von Carnap, the trend toward less data disclosure is here to stay, and researchers will need to keep pace with the new reality.

“The stress on the Chinese economy is still there,” he said, adding that more disclosure could make the Party leadership “more vulnerable to political debates,” which it wants to avoid.

Edited by Boer Deng.


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