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Dissertation Research Travel in China: Pandemic Version

Ren

We are excited to have Jian Ren, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, share with us his experience of doing research in China during the pandemic (posted on September 12, 2021).

In the summer of 2021, I completed a research trip to China for my doctoral dissertation on Cold War-era China-Latin America relations. Despite challenges of the pandemic, I finished most works at Chinese archives and libraries as planned between early May and late August. In this blog post, I will discuss what China’s “Zero-Covid” policy means for dissertation research-phase graduate students. The Chinese government’s goal in pandemic control has always been a strictly coronavirus-free society. Three steps have enabled its relative success since March 2020: draconian border control, centralized quarantine for all active cases, and contact tracing by big data. However, these measures have significantly impacted research experience.

Preparing for Out-of-Pocket Expense

Financial planning is essential for anyone interested in a research trip to mainland China. No grant or fellowship can fully support the journey. In fact, the amount of a prestigious summer travel grant for four months may not even cover a one-way flight ticket. To limit the number of international passengers, China implemented the “five-one” policy from mid-2020: a Chinese airline could only have one route to one country, one flight per week; for any foreign airline, one route to China with one flight per week. Moreover, passengers from the US to China are strictly prohibited from taking any connecting flight via a third country. The demand and supply imbalance results in surge pricing. A one-way direct flight in coach can easily exceed $5,000.

Also, Chinese consulates in the US requires PCR, antibody, and N-protein tests within 2 days before departure at their assigned locations. The only flight from the East Coast to China, JFK to PVG (Shanghai), has extremely limited availability. Other options include Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Rutgers students need to consider domestic airfares, lodging, and testing expense (around $300, no insurance allowed) to and in the departure city. Upon arrival in China, travelers must prepare at least $1,000 to $1,500 for the 14-, now 21-day hotel quarantine. 

Fortunately, it is possible to reduce travel costs by frequent flyer miles. Five months in advance, I was lucky to purchase a premium economy ticket from American Airlines for 54,500 AAdvantage miles, which was absolutely the best award travel deal I had seen in my life. Always give priority to award tickets when searching for flights to China in the pandemic.

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Understanding Regional Variance

Pandemic control strategies in China vary considerably from province to province. Know the policy in your destination before making a move. Every person in China receives a health code (screening close contact to active cases) and a big data itinerary card (tracing where you have been based on mobile data) on WeChat or Alipay. One of them or both are required to enter most indoor public places, such as airports, train stations, libraries, archives, and shopping malls. Most provinces have their own health code. For example, a green code from Shanghai may not guarantee a green code in Beijing. Shanghai is always the most lenient city with pandemic control in China. It only requires a 14-day quarantine plus 7-day health observation for international arrivals, which basically sets everyone free in the city after day 15. I received my Shanghai green code on the 15th day after arrival, but many other cities such as Beijing and Hangzhou would grant me a red code and another 14-day quarantine if I traveled there immediately. I stayed in Shanghai for 28 days, which were a safe duration before domestic travel. During my time in Shanghai, I was able to visit archives and libraries without any restrictions. 

Beside government policies, regional variance is also reflected on pandemic cultures. Few shoppers in Shanghai wore a mask despite mask mandate in shopping malls. The first thing that researchers in Shanghai libraries and archives did after finding their seats was to take off their masks. In Beijing, almost everyone wore a mask the entire time in indoor public places. Universities were an exception. I was invited to give a lecture at Nankai University in Tianjin and Jinan University in Guangzhou. I did not meet any person wearing a mask on either campus. The main reason was that Chinese universities limited visitors from entering their campus. As an invited speaker, I was required to submit all my personal information and screenshots for both health code and big data itinerary card to school administration.

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Rutgers University Beijing Center: Your Research Support

Many archives in China require researchers to submit an old-fashioned letter of introduction stamped and signed by a Chinese institution. In the past, international researchers tended to find an institutional affiliation in China to acquire the letter. Chinese universities’ restrictions on international exchange in the pandemic have made the affiliation impossible. But don’t forget that Rutgers Global has a Beijing Center! The Rutgers University Beijing Center is a legitimate “danwei” 单位 registered with the Industrial and Commercial Bureau in Beijing. Its director, Mr. Xingcai Liu, was very mindful of research difficulties in China during the pandemic and mailed me a well-written letter, which was accepted by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives. Here I would like to express my appreciation to Rutgers University Beijing Center for their research support during this challenging time.