Updated Mar 21, 2023, 4:37pm EDT
East Asia

Western scholars are worried China just got harder to study. Here's why

Dan Dimmock/Unsplash

Sign up for Semafor Flagship: A global, insightful daily briefing. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

One of China's top research portals will reportedly restrict foreign researchers from accessing its databases in the coming weeks, sparking worry among academics that studying China is about to become significantly more difficult.

The University of California, San Diego, told graduates, students, and academics in an email that they would lose access to five databases provided via China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) starting April 1 because CNKI was required to "conduct assessments in compliance with the law." Officials said they were unaware when access would be reinstituted.

Several students and academics at other institutions have reported receiving similar communications.

Title icon

Know More

The restrictions appear to be linked to an investigation launched last year by China's Cybersecurity Administration, the country's online regulator, which had then accused CNKI of exposing "sensitive information such as China's major projects, important scientific and technological achievements, and key technological trends."

The new limitations are not exclusive to the United States, with one Tokyo bookstore dedicated to Chinese texts updating customers that it would no longer be selling CNKI access credentials in light of the announcement.

CrossAsia, a German database provider that partners with CNKI, also informed customers last week that four of CNKI's databases would no longer be useable starting April.

Title icon

The View From China Watchers

Researchers have voiced concern over how the CNKI limitations will scale back research on contemporary China. One China-focused historian told Semafor the database made it possible for academics and students to pull up thousands of documents without having to physically travel to mainland libraries or universities to conduct research. Such travel has become increasingly difficult in recent years as tensions with the West have grown and China's onerous zero-COVID restrictions have made it all but impossible to travel to the country.

Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a political scientist and director of the University of Texas at Austin's Asia Policy Program, said the new regulations will do little to help diplomatic understanding between the U.S. and China.

"It's in the United States' interest that scholars and analysts here understand how Chinese counterparts see the world, and how governance works in China; the same is true in reverse," she said in an interview. "So in an environment where information is already limited, and misperception could have severely negative consequences, even a partial and supposedly temporary restriction on basic information is concerning."

Title icon

Step Back

Founded in 1999 by Tsinghua University, CNKI provides access to more than 90% of all academic journals in China, with about 40% of all materials found on the site exclusive to subscribers, according to the South China Morning Post.

It has received criticism for its high prices and de facto monopoly on academic publications, with the Chinese government last year fining CNKI more than $12 million for “harming the market development and normal academic communication” after signing exclusive partnerships with national journals and universities.