Understanding China: A Feasible Undertaking?

Adrian Johnson

06.May.2009 17.00
Room G.03, 20 Cromer Terrace - Leeds


It is generally assumed that academics are committed to the search for understanding in their areas of professional specialisation, and also to the dissemination of that understanding. It is recognised that achieving consensus about topics in fields of study outside the physical sciences is especially problematic, and not least in the study of modern China. Are there any grounds, then, to expect that sinologists can provide the kind of clear and non controversial, ‘evidence-based' advice that the government has said it would welcome? What of the same advice being provided to a wider range of institutions, groups and individuals who also want to understand China? How effective is any information or advice of this kind likely to be? In this respect, articles in The Times Higher Education of 1 April were not optimistic. Does this matter?

The cover of The Economist dated 21 March carried the words: ‘How China sees the world'; and the main leading article had the additional line: ‘And how the world should see China'. This leader and a subsequent main article dwelt on China's growing role as a ‘great power', stressing also its internal economic, social and political weaknesses. There are reasonable grounds to suggest that the Economist does not provide clear and non controversial, ‘evidence-based' views or advice about China. This is not a trivial matter. So questions arise about how reasonable it is to expect sinologists to provide guidelines for others to develop a realistic understanding of major issues involving the internal and external affairs of China. The talk will explore these issues with the aim of stimulating discussion and eliciting views on what kinds of guidelines for understanding China might be appropriate and for different categories of people.


Adrian Johnson served in China from 1982 to early 1987, and then from 1990 to 1994 as the Cultural Counsellor in the British Embassy, directing the British Council's work in China. Over 90% of the work was concerned with projects and programmes of co-operation between Britain and China in the field of higher education, focussed especially on English language, science, technology and social sciences, including management and public administration.

After retiring from the British Council in February 1994, he collaborated with Dr Lin Jian, a senior member of staff in the Management Department of a leading university in Beijing. The main focus of their cooperative work was to conduct case study research in State Owned Enterprises. The aim was to ascertain as precisely as possible what kind of changes in management systems might be most appropriate to assist managers who wished to implement the reforms needed to equip them and their enterprises to operate successfully in a ‘market economy'.

When Dr Lin Jian became President of Wuyi University, in Jiangmen, Adrian Johnson continued to assist him, working mainly from his home in UK, though also visiting China for several weeks each year. In 2004 and 2005, they cooperated with Oxford Brookes University and the Management Department of WuYi University in conducting training courses for Government officials in Jiangmen City.
Adrian Johnson also served with the British Council in Bangladesh, Ghana and Malaysia


For more info contact j.s.rauch@leeds.ac.uk or h.e.ashworth@lubs.leeds.ac.uk

Confirmation of attendance, contact: h.e.ashworth@lubs.leeds.ac.uk