The rising geopolitical tensions between the United States and China are prompting both nations to restrict exports of technologies with military applications or in areas with significant economic value. Increasingly, these restrictions are calling international commitments to the open sharing of academic research into question. Last month, the Chinese government announced new restrictions on international access to the most important academic database in China, the China National Knowledge Infrastructure Database (CNKI) (中国知网). For researchers in the US the CNKI is a critical research tool, and these restrictions reveal an unsettling fragility of some international research infrastructures.

From fieldwork to database

In the fall of 2020, I spoke to a reporter from the South China Morning Post about difficulties brought on by the pandemic for scholars who study China. Our conversation came on the heels of an online webinar hosted by the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University in which over 750 scholars came together to discuss how to study China when the pandemic border controls and increasing political tension prevented researchers from entering the country. As someone whose ethnographic fieldwork came to an abrupt and unexpected stop at the onset of the pandemic, I was able to speak at length about pandemic related challenges to my scholarship. However, by the time I spoke to the South China Morning Post, I was also able to point to an unexpected research benefit that emerged as a result of the travel bans. Namely, the end of my fieldwork launched the start of my digital scholarship.

After accepting that my original dissertation would have to be my “second book project,” I turned to a new dissertation topic that could be completed without doing fieldwork in China. Using primarily two Chinese online databases: Chinese Newspapers of Modern China – The Tabloids (1897~1949) 中国近代中文报纸全文数据库 – 小报库 (1897~1949) and China National Knowledge Infrastructure Database (CNKI) (中国知网), I was able to find abundant primary sources and secondary literature to support a new dissertation. The learning curve of switching from ethnographic research to mining databases was steep, but it also introduced me to the world of open access, data management, and metadata creation. I began to understand, through experimentation, how metadata changes search results, how to think about research data and metadata multilingually, and what open access means for the kind of scholarship I was attempting to do.

My own turn to relying heavily on Chinese online databases in response to travel bans is a common one in the field of Chinese studies. While engagement with online Chinese databases has been integral for scholars working on China for years, pandemic restrictions forced scholars working on China across fields to adapt and modify their research projects, and online databases offered a life raft for many who could no longer continue with on-the-ground research.

China National Knowledge Infrastructure Database (CNKI) and restricted access

CNKI, a multi-disciplinary full-text database of over 8,500 periodic titles published in China, is by far the largest Chinese academic database. Hosting an estimated 95 percent of all academic literature written in Chinese, it also contains government reports and yearbooks with key statistical datasets such as yearly census numbers by city and province, economic data, and health data. Scholars from across disciplines who work on China regularly turn to CNKI journals and datasets for research, and unrestricted access to information contained in CNKI is widely viewed as a crucial tool for sustaining a deep understanding of China.

In June 2022, China’s national cyberspace regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) (中华人民共和国国家互联网信息办公室), announced that CNKI would undergo a cybersecurity review. Citing a large amount of personal information and important data in key industries such as telecoms, economics, and healthcare as well as sensitive information on important scientific and technological achievements contained throughout CNKI, CAC explained CNKI would be subject to a standard cyber security review connected to new laws regulating cross-border data transfer that came into full effect in September 2022. In March 2023, CAC sent waves of panic throughout the Chinese Studies community (outside of China) by announcing a temporary suspension of foreign access to some information contained in CNKI until further review has been completed.

The panic stemmed, in part, from a long held fear appearing to come true. Researchers using Chinese databases have always been aware that the Chinese government might someday limit or cut access to the information contained within them. Instances in recent years where access to smaller online databases was curtailed and the national historical archives closed, put researchers on edge, and as political antagonisms have increased, so too has the worry about losing access to Chinese academic databases. Indeed, the precautionary principle in Chinese studies has always been to immediately download anything that comes from Chinese databases that might be of value because access might not be available the next time you look for it (see the Ithaka S+R report on research practices in Asian Studies).

However, like most China related current events, sweeping headlines tend to obscure finer points to the story, and as more details have emerged, some scholars, myself among them, have returned to a more familiar “wait and see” feeling. Of the material included in CNKI, only four databases are currently restricted outside of China while they are reviewed: China Dissertation and Master’s Theses, the China Conference Proceedings, China Statistical Yearbooks and the National Population Census of China. China Academic Journals (CAJ), the largest database included in CNKI remains fully accessible, along with most other academic published literature. On the surface, (if we shelve the underlying dread that this is the beginning of more widespread censorship), the terms of these restrictions are nerve wracking but manageable.

Implications for international scholarship

In the interim, the CNKI “temporary” restrictions provide an interesting case study of three topics central to scholarly communication across all fields: citational impact (Science citation index), open data, and information access, and how they operate within the current Sino-American political dynamic.

China’s meteoric rise in both the quantity and quality of its scientific output has been much discussed. After almost a decade of generous research funding and focused policy to improve and increase academic output, China is now a top nation in scientific research and technological development. Standing at number two in Nature’s Share index, China surpassed the US in global number of citations in 2022 and currently holds a larger fraction than the US of the top one percent most cited scientific papers.

The rapid rise in China’s research capacity has caused alarm in the United States. With geopolitical competition between the United States and China intensifying at the same time as China has become a well recognized peer to the US in scientific research, both countries have taken measures to limit the other’s access to key research areas and technologies. Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, for example, held a workshop at the request of the National Science Foundation focused on “tweak[ing] the country’s historically open system of sharing research results to meet current geopolitical realities.” In addition, the Chips and Science Act of 2022  passed by Biden prohibits any recipients of funding from engaging in expanded semiconductor manufacturing or other technological collaborations involving China, and a new export controls policy announced in October of 2022 is explicitly focused on preventing (or slowing) China’s development of AI and advanced computing technologies.

Within this context, the suspension of the four CNKI databases underscores the current international consensus that big data, and what can be done with it, is a matter of national security. While the Chinese government is currently making targeted and maybe temporary restrictions to CNKI, they may take a more aggressive approach in the future. Similarly, given the antagonistic political relationship with China, the US might impose stricter restrictions on any research collaboration with Chinese stakeholders. The potential for more drastic limitations to information sharing stands in contrast to the ideals of open science and the well-established understanding that open, international academic collaboration is key for innovative, high quality research.

Looking forward

The pandemic travel bans that halted my dissertation fieldwork have now ended, and China is again issuing visas for foreign scholars to return to China. Yet, as the physical border controls are relaxed, the virtual borders are becoming more tightly controlled. Jubilant posts across social media announcing booked research trips and academic reunions on the horizon belie the fragility of the current international research infrastructure. In the past several years, China has attempted to restrict scholarly information coming into the country. The case of CNKI points to the possibility of a significant expansion of restricting scholarship available outside the country too. Should they do so, these actions, reflecting geopolitical tension, will be part of a global trend of tightening restrictions on sharing research that is in conflict with the equally global trend towards open science.