Increase the reach and impact of China scholarship – we need to go together and faster
By: Matthias Stepan (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

CHERN is a network of more than 260 China experts from diverse academic and professional backgrounds. Propelled by the ever-increasing demand for up-to-date knowledge on China, CHERN’s 2023 training school focused on ways to increase the reach and policy impact of China scholarship. In this post, I share some observations from the CHERN training school “China Scholarship and Policy Advice: How to Reach (Out to) Policymakers”. I conclude with a collection of recommendations that might be of interest to early-career China scholars who want to increase the policy impact of their research.

Getting ready to answer the demand for up-to-date knowledge on China

Digitization and innovation in China, shifts in geopolitics, Sino-European cooperation to tackle global issues – there is an increasing demand for up-to-date knowledge on China. This includes the actions of Chinese state and non-state actors within the boundaries of the People’s Republic of China, but increasingly so in Europe and other world regions. There is a critical mass of excellent China scholarship in Europe, however, the results of the research conducted oftentimes do not reach the policymakers.

Thus, the main objective of the training school “China Scholarship and Policy Advice” was to empower early career researchers to upgrade their skills and increase the impact of their research. Among the 64 applicants, 19 were invited to take part in the full curriculum. For many of them, it was the first step to learning more about the art of providing policy advice.

Presenting the main takeaways of the training school from an organizer’s perspective, I am drawing from the inspiring inputs of the trainers and speakers who shared openly their own expertise, observations, and conversations that took place in the period from April 20 – the virtual kick-off, to May 12  – the official closing of training school after an intensive two-day in-person workshop in Brussels. Chatham House rules demand that when synthesizing all of these inputs I am not able to attribute them to respective speakers, so I am using the metaphor of “journey” to link the individual parts of the blog post.

A network(ed) approach to design a training school on “policy advice”

The CHERN Joint Working Group Meeting at INALCO in Paris in September 2022 gave inspiration to design and organize a training school focusing on “policy advice”. Participants at the conference in Paris raised the question of how to make the network and knowledge known to policymakers. The completion of the training school is but a major milestone on a longer journey – both for the trainees but also for CHERN as a network of experts. A longer journey with the ultimate goal of increasing the societal and policy impact of research on China conducted by Europe-based China scholars.

Even though the team that organized the training school has extensive expertise in designing and implementing training schools, the whole venture was a huge experiment as the training school included much more than skills training. Moderated exchanges with policymakers, lawmakers, journalists, and senior China experts from academia, business and think tanks were key components.

Senior experts from academia, think tanks, EU institutions, and business accepted our invitations to join the training school as speakers. The most time-intensive part was to get lawmakers of the European Parliament to join the program.

To ensure that we meet the expectations and needs of the trainees, the application process included a survey. Applicants were asked to rank 13 items that might feature in the training school. As for the results: Top-ranked was “Interaction with policymakers: what do policymakers really want/need from China experts” (43 out of 57 applicants ranked it 1-3), closely followed by “Interaction with China experts experienced in providing policy advice” (39 out of 57 ranked it 1-3). “Introduction to different formats/channels providing policy advice” came in third, with quite some distance from the aforementioned items. “Visiting an EU institution” was ranked lowest, yet we kept the item on the agenda. Our visit to the premises of the Directorate-General Research and Innovation (DG RTD) was more than a visit – it was a great exchange with policymakers.

Median rank of the aspect/topic of the training school that trainees (n=57) were most interested in when applying

Deep dives at a fast pace: online sessions and in-person training in Brussels

On April 20, we welcomed 19 trainees for the virtual onboarding and interaction with two senior experts. Together with the trainees, we set an extremely fast pace.

Two additional online sessions offered the opportunity for deep dives to get a better understanding of “EU lawmakers’ perspectives” and ways to “Bridging the gap between university-based research and policymakers”. The sessions with the speakers, group internal discussions, and practical assignments provided the foundation to get to know each other better.

The training days in Brussels started with an informal dinner on May 10. On May 11, two skills workshops focused on writing for policymakers and presenting research output to non-academic audiences. The afternoon sessions provided the floor to exchange with senior experts from think tanks, academia, and business. Our day concluded with a networking dinner in a restaurant at the “Grande-Place de Bruxelles”.

Trainers and trainees in front of DG RTD

The second day in Brussels started with a visit to the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD). Welcomed by a head of the unit, it was certainly one of the highlights of the training school. Policymakers from the DG RTD and three other DGs took time from their busy schedules and welcomed us for an exchange lasting 1.5 hours. Back on the premises of the COST Association, the trainees heard from two journalists “what media really wants (to know) from China experts”. The third skills workshop focused on “self-marketing as a China expert”, including recommendations for the use of visualization tools.

Concluding the training school with a feedback session, we confirmed that trainees especially appreciated the interactions with invited experts and each other. They started to see the value of exchanging with people from other disciplines and with different perspectives and backgrounds for relevant policy advice. The skills sessions provided them with skills and tools to convey a clear yet uncompromised message.

They would have loved to have more time for discussion. Discussions with speakers, in-depth discussions with trainers, and more time for coffee breaks with their peers in Brussels.

The journey does not end: lessons learnt and recommendations

All participating actors – trainees, trainers, and interlocutors – shared that they learnt from the encounters and considered it extremely valuable to exchange and learn about different perspectives. And this should continue – holding this training session as a means to build bridges between China scholarship and other relevant parties is not an endpoint. Everyone is invited to take it from here and decide how they want to grow, to connect, and to collaborate in the future.

We are all on our individual journeys as learning beings, but this does not necessarily mean we must go alone. As indicated in some of the recommendations below, going together is more conducive to making headway in increasing the impact and reach of China scholarship.


- Share and listen:

  • Engage different audiences on China – it can be at your university, your local community, but of course, also policymakers on regional, national, or even European level.
  • Next to sharing your knowledge, you should also carefully listen to gain a better understanding of the level of knowledge and potential knowledge gaps.

- Be purposeful:

  • Clarify for yourself what the key purpose of your work is, what makes you feel you are doing the right thing.
  • Listening to different experts, the following roles seem the most frequent: knowledge broker and policy advocate. And sometimes, your role as a China scholar might even feel like a relationship coach, as the political relationship is at an all-time low, and trust among political leaders has been lost

- Be active, not an activist:

  • Follow the debates and contribute your existing expertise where applicable.
  • Identify the knowledge gaps and try to help fill them by conducting original research.

- Engage the media, but do not try to do the job of journalists:

  • To make the findings of your research known to a broader public, search for contact with media outlets and prepare your main points well.
  • Scientific rigor and in-depth knowledge of the subject at hand are the “trademarks” of university-based scholars.

- Know your strength, know your limitations, know the strength of others – connect, collaborate:

  • You cannot find answers to all the questions and problems you might encounter – know your strengths but also your limitations.
  • Know the strength of others – including those outside the field of China studies who might have the knowledge or other resources to support you in addressing a problem or answering a certain question.
  • Identify opportunities to collaborate with others.

- Know your own “political system” – key national an EU institutions:

  • To ensure that your recommendations reach the correct actor at the right time with recommendations that are truly actionable, you must know about the competencies of different actors, policymaking processes, and rules of engagement.

- Know the security implications:

  • Be aware of the impact of the changing geopolitical context, Chinese domestic security legislation, and European efforts to regulate scientific cooperation with Chinese entities.
  • Conduct research in line with ethical standards in research, e.g., protecting your interviewees.

- Visualization is key:

  • This blog is not a paper for policymakers, and still, I hope the graph highlights the intended message.
Thank you, everyone, again for making the training school happen.

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