Innovation of Chinese IR Theory as a Chinese Dream Statist Doctrine Versus Diasporic Narratives

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Walter Lee / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Walter Lee / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Jyrki Kallio / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Jyrki Kallio / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Elina Sinkkonen / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Elina Sinkkonen / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä

Wed 17.8.2016 at 9:00-10:30
Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, Helsinki

Presenting itself as part of the non-Western and/or post-Western IR study, the innovation of Chinese IR theory has increasingly become a contentious issue, most noticeably since the publication of Yan Xuetong’s Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton, 2011). On the one hand, theorists, historians, and policy-makers try to excavate philosophical ideas from ancient China, in the hope of reinventing and applying classical conceptions to explain and to solve contemporary complications in Chinese foreign relations and global politics. On the other hand, there are scholars who are sceptical of the whole approach and question the legitimacy of its raison d’être. What does it take to reinvent a Chinese IR theory (or norm, or principle) that responds sensibly to the need of China, Asia-Pacific, and the global community? If soft power building is ultimately a civilisational issue, then where is diasporic China in "The China Dream” narrative? Would the West and the rest accommodate or exclude it?

Speaker: Walter Lee, Senior Research Fellow, University of Hong Kong

Comments: Jyrki Kallio, Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Chair: Elina Sinkkonen, Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the seminar

Elina Sinkkonen, Senior Research Fellow at FIIA, chaired the event and presented opening remarks. While introducing the guest speaker, Sinkkonen pointed out that the Western IR theory is opening up for more influences from the East and that there already exists a growing number of works published on constructing a Chinese IR theory. There is however no unison on how such a theory should be constructed or if it even is necessary.  

Walter Lee, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, presented a fresh view on Chinese IR theory. Originating from Hong Kong and holding a Chinese passport, he introduced his topic through his own diasporic Chinese background while raising a number of fundamental questions. Whose theory is the Chinese IR theory and whose dream is the Chinese Dream? When we talk about "the Chinese”, who exactly are we talking about? And ultimately, is there a need for a uniquely Chinese IR theory? He argued that because the Chinese party-state does not equal the Chinese tradition, the culture, or the civilization, such a theory should not be monopolized by the PRC. Lee presented his views in the context of two themes: non-Western and/or post-Western IR, and Chinese soft power and the Chinese Dream, as well as in form of the dichotomy between the statist doctrine and the diasporic narratives.

In the context of non-Western and/or post-Western IR, Lee noted that there is an absence of comparative studies in IR, in contrast to other forms of world studies. He emphasized the role of the humanities and the importance of knowledge production. A non-Western IR theory should not just focus on great powers in the region, but essentially on how knowledge is produced. It should be noted that knowledge production is always political and that the norms and values taken by global audiences are derived from tertiary institutions in the West. It is the Western institutions that create and lead what people think, talk and debate about, and the Chinese academia cannot do the same in terms of knowledge production and application. Lee argued that the Chinese IR theory should be more than merely a national Chinese school of IR. It should also be more than a theory in the shadow of American IR scholarship – which is heavily positivist and realist.

The second context presented was that of Chinese soft power and the Chinese Dream. Lee felt that a soft power doctrine largely remains undefined and open to interpretation. At the heart of such a doctrine are often Chinese classical canons and ancient resources, traditional norms and values. Lee noted that the statist interpretation of the Chinese Dream is often heavy with a realpolitik tone. The Chinese Dream can be seen as a kind of revision or "correction” of the global governance theory.

In the discussion of statist doctrines versus diasporic narratives, Lee talked about the top-down propaganda of the Communist Party of China. An interesting example is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s use of Chinese classic texts. What is the intention behind citing the classics and who is the authority on what interpretation is correct? What happens after Xi? The second statist doctrine discussed was the theory presented by Party-affiliated academics who are trying to create a universal IR theory for the People’s Republic of China in a very scientific manner. Lee argued that this kind of theory is very sinocentric as well as hierarchical and monist.

At the core of the diasporic narrative is the decentralized view of China not just as a nation state but as a cultural sphere and civilization. Thus, the narrative adds a bottom-up approach to the much more common top-down approach of the Chinese IR theory. Lee stated that the Chinese diasporic community should be given a bigger voice since they have great potential to contribute to the discussion of a Chinese IR theory. The diasporic narrative focuses on the pre-imperial era and is problem-solving based – an approach that could be more widely accepted and could prove useful in developing policies and tackling challenges. The diasporic narrative presents a "middle road” approach to Chinese IR theory but as such it is not without controversy. It can be viewed as being in support of both the Chinese dream and soft power as well as of American liberal democracy, creating mutual distrust.  

Jyrki Kallio, Senior Research Fellow at FIIA, noted that there is an ongoing battle between those in support of the Chinese IR theory and the sceptics. He felt that the diasporic narrative is indeed a welcome addition to the existing body of theories, an important middle road approach, where China is seen as something more than just the PRC. In the view of the Chinese Communist Party, universal values are generally deemed unsuitable for China or even impossible per se, and the Chinese Dream can be viewed as a form of alternative for Western democracy. Within the PRC perspective, Kallio distinguished between two approaches: studying state-to-state interaction in pre-Qin Dynasty China, a time before China was united, or turning to classical texts for guidance. However, in both of these views the idea of tianxia, "all under heaven”, is prevalent. Kallio criticized the strong presence of tianxia since its focus is on the necessity of one moral leader – in the Chinese perspective, even if not stated bluntly, China – who sets the norms. Therefore, it would be useful for Chinese IR theory to be liberated from the thought of unity and instead focus on decentralization, which is exactly what the diasporic narrative offers.

In the Q&A session that followed, one question was about the agency behind the diasporic narrative. Lee explained that it is a multidisciplinary academic approach that can find support across and beyond nation-state borders but one that is yet to gain widespread acknowledgement.