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Browsing Chinese policy documents with AI: 'There is more public than you might think'

Corona travel restrictions and increased political pressure: research into China has become considerably more difficult in recent years. University lecturer and China researcher Rogier Creemers does not let this put him off. He receives an NWO grant to screen policy documents using digital techniques.

Online databases that are no longer accessible, sources blocked by location, conferences that can no longer be attended. Creemers smoothly lists the obstacles he and other China experts have faced in recent years. Yet the policy researcher is not discouraged by these. 'The question should be: what can we still do?'

Bureaucracy in Mandarin Chinese

He thinks he has found the answer to this in the relentless stream of policy papers produced by the Communist Party. 'We are very fond of saying that everything the Communist Party writes is propaganda. That may be true of documents manufactured for external consumption, but to run a party with 95 million members you also just need visible information. All those white papers, reports and local regulations written for that purpose can help us understand China's policies on specific policy fields or on very specific policy issues.'

This does highlight one problem. 'Going through all those documents is incredibly tedious work. Bureaucratic reading is no fun in any language, but in Mandarin Chinese it is absolutely terrible.' To make that challenge easier and to take in more texts than would be humanly possible, Creemers is going to work with AI. An NWO grant will allow him and a team to examine various policy areas.

Service to the field

'We see this mainly as a service to the field,' Creemers says about it. 'Ultimately, it would be nice to see how national technology policy is implemented at local level, but the aim of this project is primarily to develop a method that other researchers can also use and thus take a bit of a lead in the field. That is also what I like about this grant. Other NWO grants are often focused on the individual and promotion, but the Open Competition, on the other hand, focuses on broadening and resources. I can now enable young enthusiastic colleagues to look at China from their own field of interest and make their mark on research, while at the same time we create a framework that binds it all together.'

Ultimately, that framework should also be able to help the Dutch government further. 'There, people now often look at one law or policy document, but it is often difficult for officials from the Netherlands to see how that fits into the big picture of China. With this approach, that big picture becomes much easier to see.'

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