Scholar reveals modern Chinese society through ethnography
Mar 19, 2017

Since ancient times, Japan has been influenced in a myriad different ways by its giant continental neighbor, China. For more than the last quarter century, Associate Professor Tomoko Ako of the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has been observing and studying the country from the inside to cast light on some of the problems facing Chinese society today.

The draw of Chinese studies and ethnography

Ako notes that she has enjoyed observing people ever since she was a little girl, watching travel documentaries on television with rapt fascination. As an undergraduate, she envisioned working for an organ of the United Nations or a non-governmental organization (NGO), but when she was studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Cheng Kai Ming steered her toward studying Chinese society using the techniques of ethnography, and she chose that as her career path (figure 1).

Ethnography refers to a form of fieldwork pioneered in cultural anthropology. The researcher immerses herself in the target culture as a participant—working as a teacher's aide in a school, for example, or on an irrigation project team, or as a staff member for a local NGO (figure 2)—and from that inside vantage point observes, documents, and analyzes the people's lives and activities. By using the techniques of ethnography, Ako has been able to portray many different aspects of Chinese society as only a direct participant can, while at the same time maintaining a third-person perspective as an outsider.

To give just one example, an economically struggling rural village in Henan Province experienced a spike in HIV carriers, and people started referring to it as "the AIDS village." The regional government had colluded with business interests to promote a program that offered ready cash for blood, but the unsanitary conditions under which the blood was being collected had allowed the virus to spread. With the government refusing to allow AIDS-related lawsuits, the victims could only suffer in silence. Under such circumstances, unless there is someone on the inside willing to speak out, word about what is going on may never reach the outside world.

Ethnography can illumine hidden complexities of society

In a country where freedom of expression is not necessarily guaranteed, it is no easy matter for a foreign scholar to pursue her research interests among the local population. Researchers often draw the attention of the authorities and face obstruction. Ako herself was taken into custody while conducting research in Inner Mongolia in 2002, and more recently her computer containing important study data as well as her mobile phone were seized by the authorities. Local bureaucrats are wary of anything that could potentially lead to criticism.

"One of my Chinese students was punished by the university where she worked for critical views she expressed in an academic article. Similarly, Chinese scholars I've gotten to know as friends are no longer allowed to teach classes, or have been reassigned to library duty. Even for me, there's the fear that if I try to dig too deep in my fieldwork, I could be banned from entering the country again. But I have no intention of backing away. This, too, is part of the Chinese reality. As such, it is part and parcel of what I want to study. I'd like to unpack it as one of the factors contributing to the lack of democratization in China."

Ako emphasizes that a simplistic analysis pitting popular dissatisfaction against government repression cannot possibly explain the complexity of what is going on in today's China. She points in particular to the existence of a caste-like family registry system that draws a sharp line between city and countryside and severely restricts the movement of people from farming villages into the cities. This all entangles with a cultural tendency to defer to those of higher rank, a legacy of Confucianism, and with a general disinclination toward united action unless there are clear common interests at stake, all of which works to exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. Although the spread of the internet has brought many new opportunities for individuals to express themselves, and human rights lawyers like Pu Zhiqiang have stepped up to push forward their fight, it seems unlikely that a rapid transition akin to the Arab Spring could come anytime soon, according to Ako.

"I can't give up"

That's all the more reason scholars must continue speaking out about the dire need for both freedom of expression and an independent judiciary, says Ako firmly. But the more one learns about the real China, the more one sees the shocking and deep-seated problems the society faces. There is no denying the sense of oppression, and it is natural to want to avert one's eyes.

"That may be so, but I intentionally am placing focus on the oppressive aspects of Chinese society, while the Chinese people themselves don't actually seem very pessimistic. Maybe they're just caught up with getting by from day to day, but they are in fact leading lives of undaunted determination. So I know I can't give up, either."

While candidly admitting to how hard it can be, Ako refuses to turn away from the harsh realities and, converting even repression into motivation for carrying on her research, continues to do what she feels must be done. Though she is mild both in manner and in speech, after so many years of conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the ground in China, the undaunted determination shown by her subjects has clearly rubbed off on her as well (figure 3).

Interview/text: Jiro Takai
Photo courtesy of Tomoko Ako

SOURCE / The University of Tokyo