China Power

A Revolving Door Era for China?

Interdisciplinary experience would benefit both scholars and diplomats, but there are some hurdles to clear.

A Revolving Door Era for China?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping appointed Qu Xing as the Chinese ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, in accordance with the decision of the Standing Committee of the People’s National Congress of China. Before this appointment, Qu was the director of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in Beijing. This appointment has piqued the interest of Chinese scholars in international relations, some of whom see it as a sign of the beginning of a revolving door era in China.

Qu Xing is a well-known scholar in the international relations sphere in China. He holds a PhD and Master’s Degree in Political Science from Sciences Po in France and a Bachelor Degree in French from the Beijing Foreign Languages University. He is also a commenter for several TV channels, including China Central Television (CCTV) Channel 4, the International Channel. Being the director of the CIIS, he is well known to many in the academic world of international relations in China. His publications have often appeared in major academic journals such as Shijie Jingji Yu Zhengzhi (World Economy and Politics), China’s leading journal on international relations, and in newspapers like the Global Times, which is the People’s Daily’s official newspaper on foreign affairs. Thus, he has cultivated a reputation in both the academic and popular spheres.

This is also not the first time that Qu Xing has been chosen as a diplomat. The scholar was appointed envoy to the Chinese Embassy to France in 2006 when he was the Vice-Dean of the Chinese Foreign Affairs College. After returning from Paris in 2010, he became the director of CIIS, which is a major think tank on foreign affairs in China and directly led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This time, however, he has been appointed an Ambassador, a far bigger role than his previous post in France. For some observers, it may be a sign that more Chinese scholars are to take important posts in the near future. But is this possible?

The revolving door mechanism has long existed in the West, most notably in the United States. This mechanism allows movement of people from the government to the private or academic sectors and back again. One of the best known examples among international relations scholars is Joseph Nye. He helped establish neo-liberalism in international relations theory, developed the concept of soft power, and has been a professor at Harvard University for more than thirty years. During the Clinton Administration, Nye was appointed assistant secretary of Defense and was responsible for international security affairs from 1994 to 1995. After that, he returned to Harvard, taking the position of dean at the Harvard Kennedy School of Governance.

The revolving door mechanism has seldom been seen in Chinese foreign affairs and most Chinese diplomats are directly recruited and trained by the MFA. In recent years, a few scholars have taken positions in Chinese embassies abroad, among them Pan Zhongqi, professor and head of the Department of Diplomacy in Fudan University, and Wang Yiwei, professor of Diplomacy at the Renmin University of China. Both were appointed first secretary to the Chinese mission to the EU in Brussels. But these cases are extremely rare. And no scholar had ever been appointed to a major role such as ambassador, until Qu.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Does Qu Xing’s appointment indicate the beginning of China’s revolving door era? It is perhaps too early to tell. On the one hand, most Chinese diplomats master at least one foreign language and take positions in different divisions in the MFA, both domestically and overseas. They are very experienced in dealing with foreign affairs, but they often lack knowledge of international relations and the ability to analyze events, especially during crises. On the other hand, China has dozens of outstanding scholars who are experts in internationals relations research but lack practical diplomatic experience. They have extensive academic experience in overseas universities and institutions but have few opportunities to serve as diplomats. Qu is one of the rare exceptions: a scholar who has both an academic background and practical diplomatic experience. Obviously, his close relationship with the MFA is a bonus.

A revolving door between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and universities is going to face obstacles in areas such as human resources management, personal interests, and national security. First, the MFA is a government body while universities are not, even if universities and government bodies share a similar hierarchical structure. Second, university scholars may have long-term career plans and not all of them are willing to take positions abroad. Finally, diplomats are privy to sensitive information, so relations with foreign scholars or institutions may be obstacles in background checks for Chinese scholars.

If a revolving door between the MFA and universities is to be established, it would not only benefit the Chinese diplomatic system but also the research of international relations. The MFA could make use of the university talent pool to serve as diplomats in accordance with their expertise of scholars. Scholars could learn more about the operational process of the MFA to produce more valuable policy advice for the MFA later in their careers. It would certainly be beneficial for China’s diplomatic community, and Qu Xing’s appointment is a step in the right direction, but there are yet many obstacles to be overcome.

Wang Shichen is a PhD Fellow at the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctoral School on Globalisation, Europe and Multilateralism. He is currently a doctoral researcher at the Institute of European Studies in Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium. His main academic interests include EU-China Relations, Chinese Foreign Policy and Mainland China’s Relations with Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. He is also a regular writer for South China Morning Post.