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Putting Practice Into Theory: China’s IR Scholars Enter the Limelight

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Putting Practice Into Theory: China’s IR Scholars Enter the Limelight

Chinese academics are ushering in a new school of thought concerning China’s role in international affairs – one that is particularly attractive to the developing world.

Putting Practice Into Theory: China’s IR Scholars Enter the Limelight
Credit: Depositphotos

China’s foreign policy establishment is increasingly asserting itself. As China becomes more prominent in global governance, simply suggesting solutions in various international forums seems anachronistic – other countries now expect Beijing to be able to show its workings, too.

That being the case, a growing number of Chinese individuals and institutions have mobilized to try and explain how Beijing comes to its conclusions and how these decisions manifest themselves overseas. Writing within the parameters laid down by the Chinese state and often under its auspices, these voices seek to provide an intellectual structure to the Chinese government’s foreign policy. Whether they are qualified to comment on affairs of state is unclear, but they are ushering in a new school of thought concerning China’s role in international affairs nonetheless.

China’s diplomatic corps – the largest in the world – has a reputation for opacity. Not only is it widely believed to operate according to a strict disciplinary code, leaving those based overseas with little room to deviate from the lines Beijing hands down, but the Foreign Ministry also appears to be a relatively weak government body, squeezed from all sides and in constant competition with the Ministry of Commerce and state-owned enterprises. That makes discerning who is calling the shots difficult, as is ironing out the logic that underpins China’s overseas ambitions.

Enter China’s think tank community. As China continues to acquire positions of influence in international bodies, it becomes ever more important for Beijing to look like it can lend a well-reasoned voice to broader discussions in geopolitics that go beyond its core interests. As a result, numerous semi-official institutions have got to work setting out the logic informing their country’s new and increasingly assertive foreign policy. Often sitting under the State Council or United Front Work Department, the latter falling under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, such institutions have upped the ante in recent years, publishing volumes aiming to explain the intentions of the Chinese state or musing on the nature of Chinese power overseas.

And yet, whether these institutions simply follow CCP instructions is not clear cut. While the party certainly sets the parameters within which Chinese academics at think tanks such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences or the Center for China and Globalization can operate, the idea that they write solely to substantiate the government’s foreign policy, abandoning objectivity in the process, is highly speculative, and may be doing them a disservice. Indeed, given China’s record in global governance over the last decade, the notion that China’s think tank community believes that their country exhibits model behaviors as an actor in international affairs is an eminently plausible one.

Either way, Chinese academics are becoming more vocal about how China is perceived overseas. China’s think tanks now fuel a vibrant debate on topics such as what their country’s new globalism means for China and the wider world; whether Beijing’s ability to succeed where the Soviet Union failed warrants a re-examination of how scholars approach the study of modern history; and the possibility that China has a better grasp of what it is to be democratic than the West. And they have good reason to take this approach – representatives from China continue to win elections for leadership roles in international institutions including the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.

New conceptual frameworks abound. To some of these scholars, for example, China exhibits “reform-minded leadership” and is a “facilitative power” that endeavors to pull up other developing countries rather than maintain a rigid hierarchy of nations with itself firmly fixed at the top. It is even possible to point to examples of what has been termed “international leadership with Chinese characteristics.”

Conceptualizing Chinese power appears to resonate most with a new and younger generation of Chinese scholars, many of whom are junior research associates at think tanks and have produced Ph.D. theses around this topic. Distinguishing this new wave of Chinese scholars is relatively straightforward – their writings are more self-assured, while the idea that China is exceptional in some way is a more regular feature. So, too, is the complaint that Western scholarship concerning China’s behavior in international affairs pays insufficient attention to Chinese perspectives. Meanwhile, contradictions between what China says and how China acts on the world stage are often explained as the prerogative of being a great power, citing the actions of the United States as precedent. Finally, they are now more likely to have published in English to try to reach out to an international audience.

And yet, the output of most Chinese think tanks seldom graces the pages of the more high-impact factor publications. That is, their output is less concerned with adding to the Western debate on China’s role in the world and instead seeks to push a particular and “correct” way of interpreting China’s actions overseas, especially in the Global South. This could be because these authors are aiming to engage an audience spread across the southern hemisphere that sees China as its future and that could be more receptive towards these scholars’ interpretations of Beijing’s actions overseas.

China’s rise has lit a fire under its foreign policy establishment. As the country continues to assert itself in international forums and make its views on how the world should work known more widely, its think tank community is stepping up its efforts to provide an intellectual framework for the government’s foreign policy. Stating that these scholars, who are increasingly confident in China’s capabilities overseas and believe in its convictions, are simply parroting CCP lines does them a disservice. To the contrary, it is in fact perfectly plausible that this new wave of Chinese scholars genuinely considers their country capable of offering an alternative to the current U.S.-led international order.

Moreover, they appear to have found their audience, namely similarly disaffected scholars across the Global South who share their dismay that the West maintains such a hold over determining how states should behave. Out of sight, China’s academics are constructing a coherent Chinese worldview – Western scholars would do well to ensure they don’t fall out of mind.