Studies of Xi Jinping thought or ideology grab lion's share of funding for research
It pays to focus on leader's words or ideology if you're a social sciences researcher seeking a grant
Academics hungry for grants should pick up a collection of speeches by Xi Jinping - it pays to study the words of the president, according to the latest round of state funding for social sciences.
Nearly all of the proposals approved by the National Social Sciences Fund deal with analysing Xi's thoughts or ideology, a departure from previous years.
Analysts said the shift pointed towards the increasing influence of propaganda over academia, and the emergence of a cult of personality around Xi.
The grants, some worth as much as 800,000 yuan (HK$1 million), are decided by the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science. The organisation falls under the party's Publicity Department and is headed by propaganda chief Liu Qibao . Despite that proximity to the censors, the office has previously shown a willingness to support a wider range of research proposals. But this year, five of the 12 top topics on the list to receive major funding are about Xi. And none of the chosen scholars has a published history of "Xi thought", which suggests academics are pushing topics likely to get approval rather than ones in their area of expertise.
"It is ridiculous to find that Xi's speeches have topped this year's list, a phenomenon unseen under previous administrations," Renmin University political science professor Zhang Ming said. "This year's list has shown that the party propaganda authorities are promoting the cult of personality."
The fund was established in 1991 and awards grants to study up to 2,000 research projects in the social sciences, about a few dozen of which are deemed "major projects" and eligible for a larger share of the money. The funding given to each major project jumped from between 250,000 yuan and 300,000 yuan last year to 400,000 yuan this year. The biggest projects will receive as much as 800,000 yuan.
While Xi's two predecessors - Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin - were in office, no grants were awarded to study their speeches, and the list had fewer topics related to ideology. But this year five of the remaining seven proposals not about Xi's thought relate to ideology.
City University media professor Xigen Li suggested academics were practising a form of grant self-censorship in what they chose for further study.
"They might have identified important topics in various areas, but cannot afford to lose out to the competition if they ignore the popular topics set by the ideological governing body, with other scholars selecting their topics by catering to the need to advance the dominant ideology," Li said.
Five scholars on this year's list are party theorists who focus on global communist theory and movements, but did not publish research on theories related to Xi's thinking even before he rose to the presidency last year.
Tao Wenzhao , a professor at Renmin University, ranked first on the list with his plan to study the "essence of Xi Jinping's series of important speeches". Second was Ai Silin , the dean of Tsinghua University's school of Marxism, who proposed a "study of innovation" in Xi's key speeches.
From information available online, none of Tao's nine major research projects, four books or 47 published academic papers relate to studying Xi. Nor does Ai have a history of publications on the topic.
Zhang said areas deemed off-limits by party propagandists were unlikely to receive funding. He referred to the seven "unmentionable" topics contained in Document No9, which the party issued last year. It ordered universities and academics to steer clear of universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens' rights, the party's historical aberrations, the "privileged capitalistic class" and the independence of the judiciary.
"Topics relating to Western philosophy, constitutional law or judicial independence are the first to be sacrificed. No research on these topics has received funding," Zhang said.
Some intellectuals close to the establishment have expressed concern that the tightening of ideological controls will distract from their academic research following a string of official criticism of academics for failing to hew to the party's ideological or political beliefs.
May last year, the Ministry of Education and the party's departments of organisation and publicity called for better "ideological and political training" for younger university teachers.
This month, party officials from some of the most prestigious universities and research institutes pledged to uphold ideological controls over their students and faculty.
Xiaoyu Pu, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, said the leadership wanted social scientists to be both exponents of propaganda and think-tank researchers.
"Many research projects target practical issues for policymakers. On the other hand, some of the funded projects primarily serve an ideological purpose, legitimising the rule of the Communist Party," Pu said.
China lags rich nations in social science development
Despite its rising clout after three decades of rapid economic growth, China has lagged far behind industrialised nations in the development of social sciences.
- For instance, there is no Chinese academic journal in social sciences among the world's top 300 journals compiled by SCImago Journal and Country Rank, which measures the international influence of scholarly journals.
- And there are only two China-published academic social-science journals listed among the thousands used by the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). The index is maintained by Thomson Reuters' health-care division.
- Chinese social scientists and academics published 6,548 papers in SSCI-recognised journals between 1978 and 2007, an annual average of 218 each year, or about 0.16 per cent of the global total published by SSCI publications during the period.