Wall Street Journal: Denying Historians: China’s Archives Increasingly Off-Bounds

Before I came to China to do research for the first time, I worried about how I would get access to the archives. I had heard plenty of war stories from historians who had done their dissertation research in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the archives had been opened to foreigners (unlike the Mao years), but getting permission to view documents could still be difficult and time-consuming. I dreaded the possibility of spending weeks or even months plying the archive staff with gifts of tea and cigarettes in an effort to build guanxi, or connections, with them, and I feared that even if I got through the door, I wouldn’t be allowed to see the files I needed to write my dissertation. (For a story of what it used to be like to do research in China, check out this interview with UC San Diego’s Paul Pickowicz at China Digital Times.)

But when I nervously ventured to the Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA) in October 2012 and presented myself at the registration desk, I found that times had changed and my fears were unfounded. I filled out a short form with basic biographical data, handed over my passport for them to photocopy, and received an access card for the archives only a few minutes later—no cajoling or bribes necessary.

In the past year, however, the SMA and other archives across China have tightened access and imposed new restrictions on researchers, which is the topic of my latest post at the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog:

At the Dissertation Reviews website, which provides information about archival access in countries around the world, students of Chinese history have written in to warn fellow scholars about new regulations that make navigating the archives trickier than before. The SMA is now enforcing a long-ignored requirement that foreign researchers affiliate with and present a letter of introduction from a Chinese university or research institute when registering at the archives. While that may seem like a reasonable and minor bureaucratic requirement, securing such an affiliation can be both onerous and expensive (the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where I’ve been a visiting scholar for nearly two years, charges me a hefty “administrative fee” every month for this affiliation).

This is an issue that worries me not only as a professional who needs access to archives, but also because it reflects the general air of tightening as the government moves to exert more control over all areas of society. Read the rest of the column here.

P.S. Still no regular blogging from me because I’ve finished my dissertation (woohoo!) and while I’m waiting for all four of my committee members to read it and decide whether or not to pass me, am hanging out in Kenting, Taiwan:

View of Kenting's Nanwan Beach from my hotel room balcony.
View of Kenting’s Nanwan Beach from my hotel room balcony.

It’s a pretty okay place to kill time. Back to real life next week. (Including, incidentally, the fact that I need to get a new letter of affiliation so I can renew my access card to the SMA—hopefully no one there reads the Wall Street Journal …)

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