Thoughts on Attending the Qinghua University International Relations Conference

Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Ukraine—it is quite difficult to keep up with all the recent developments in international politics. In fact, the seventh annual political science and international relations conference hosted by Qinghua University from June 5-7 expanded to three days this year rather than the normal two. There was a lot to talk about.

With 113 panels over two days filled with Chinese researches from all over the country and one day with more senior scholars from China and the United States, it was impossible to attend every interesting talk.  Topics ranged from current international headlines like China-Vietnam relations and stability in the Middle East the more abstract and academic question of how to become an effective teacher and productive researcher.  Panels about current events were often not much more than people simply giving their opinion on recent news. Although there is not much research behind these discussions, they do provide a way to gauge the pulse of some prominent people. The more overtly academic panels provided heaps of interesting tidbits about how young Chinese academics and graduate students view their own education (one Peking University  student was very critical of the training he received in the International Relations PhD program).

A number of panels focused on expansion of Chinese economic interests abroad. The Charhar Institute, an independent think-tank headed by Han Fangming, sponsored a three hour session on Business Diplomacy (公司外交), several forums focused on the recent strategy (but not quite yet a policy) of 一带一路 and several young researches in political economy organized a three hour session on China’s special economic diplomacy (中国特色的大国经济外交). Like at any conference, people haggled over definitions: What exactly do we mean by 公司外交? What is a 大国? Is China a 大国? In this case, though, with tacking on business and economics to the term diplomacy, the discussion never really got to key matter. How long can the PRC maintain its basic foreign policy principle of proclaiming not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries as it accumulates assets and interests abroad? No one addressed this issue directly. Perhaps one definition of a 大国 is a country where economic interests slowly come to trump established principles.

It was also interesting to attend several panels on the PRC’s public diplomacy and the general task of spreading Chinese culture abroad, especially in light of all the recent discussion about the proper role of Confucian Institutes. Several people in attendance had actually worked in Confucian Institutes abroad. As one participant observed, each year the themes of these panels are about the same but nothing seems to actually change: China’s public diplomacy is not really succeeding. People who had spent time teaching at Confucian Institutes, made an important and seldom-heard point about the content of the offered at these centers. The Confucian Institutes usually teach Chinese calligraphy and other types activities that are supposed to represent “traditional Chinese culture” but as one educator said, foreigners, especially ones without that much exposure to China, don’t really care about this kind of thing. Many Chinese people, she said, don’t do much calligraphy once they get past primary school (in the unrepresentative sample of people on the panel, no one did any calligraphy at all!). It was not a discussion about Confucian Institutes and limiting academic freedom but a more basic one about whether Confucian Institutes are succeeding in their stated mission.

This discussion confirmed a thought that I have been formulating for some time: China’s public diplomacy views China’s culture and history as its best asset and tries to spread it abroad. Instead, it is possible that the PRC’s best asset in is actually the Chinese people themselves, whose lives, aspirations and worries and hopes are not all that different from Americans. Unfortunately, this group does not play much of a role in Chinese public diplomacy.

The United States, of course, was the subject of numerous panels. In fact, it only took about 90 seconds into the first panel on the first day for the first mention of declining American hegemony. Later in the day, a group of Chinese political economists agreed that future historians would look back at the period between 2008 to 2013 as a key watershed in world history, an important break in the system of international relations that emerged after World War II.

Not all the panels about the U.S. had quite the same flavor of American decline. One young researcher from Qinghua just back from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins had an interesting project on youth voters in the United States. Diao Daming of the American research center at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, who understands U.S. Congressional politics better than most Americans (myself included), had a number of insightful remarks about the state of American studies in China: it is often too much simply in the service of policy.

The most interesting session took place at the end of the conference and was not so much a panel as a reading group. A number of media scholars read the newly translated version of Professor Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civil Life, and basically just got together for a seminar. The discussion was supposed to last 90 minutes; it went three hours and spilled over into dinner. It was a different crowd that the political scientists. They were no policy recommendations or predictions about the future course of US-China relations, just a number of very smart people coming together after having read a book to discuss the evolution of citizenship in American history and what citizenship meant in China today. Everything was on the table: from citizenship before and after Tiananmen to ideas about citizenship in the era of social media.

It was a very academic ending to a weekend concerned mostly with policy and international politics.

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