China News and Events, Meet the Advisers

Meet the Advisers: Interview with Prof. Dr. Zhang Qingmin 张清敏

zhang-qingminThe Middle Kingdom Review’s academic advisers hail from all over the world. This week, Benjamin Griffin catches up with Prof. Dr. Zhang Qingmin 张清敏, an expert on Chinese foreign policy, decision making and diplomacy. Zhang is Chair of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University and professor in both the Yenching Academy and School of International Studies, Peking University.

School of International Studies, Peking University
13 January 2017

Good morning, Professor and thank you for your time today. I am sure you are very busy. 

Q: Professor, Chinese foreign policy has been an integral part of your research history; you gained your MA from Brigham Young University and then went on to receive your PhD from the China Foreign Affairs University where you have also taught. Now you are currently head of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University and have published several books on the subject. So where did your passion for foreign affairs begin and how did you know this is what you wanted to study in your later career? 

A: I first became interested in foreign affairs and international relations when I was an undergraduate majoring in foreign languages (English). That was not long after China opened to the outside. To study English, I had to pay attention to the outside world and I began learning about international affairs.  My field for graduate study was IR with a focus on China’s foreign relations. As a graduate I had to study hard, and the more I studied, the more I enjoyed it. So far I have remained interested in it and have not been distracted by many other things. I do not think I had an innate passion but I believe that interest is the best teacher for whatever one learns.

Q: And what fundamental changes have you seen in this academic field since the beginning of your research?

A: I think there have been two fundamental changes in this field since I began to study it. One is a shift from learning from the East (former Soviet Union) to learning from the West – mainly the US. Most of my former professors and teachers were very much influenced by the Soviets and many of them studied Russian as their foreign language. Today, the mainstream of the IR field in China is influenced by the US and English has become a common language for our generation. The earlier generation emphasised the role of class struggle and they understood IR from a Marxist perspective whilst today’s Chinese IR scholars have introduced almost all of the western IR theories into the Chinese academic psyche . The second change was that the field was part of history and most IR scholars were historians and today most of us belong the field of political science.

Q: In 2014 you published your most recent book “Contemporary China’s Diplomacy” can you tell us more about that?

A: That book introduces major issues and aspects involved with the study of Chinese diplomacy. The main contents include the basic historical development and the logic of China’s diplomacy; the structure of China’s foreign relations or China’s relations with major countries or areas; China’s integration within the international system and China’s multilateral diplomacy; the structural changes in China’s diplomatic institutions, and the changes that pluralised diplomatic channels.

Q: At the moment you are teaching at the School of International Studies and the Yenching Academy, can you tell us more about your roles here?

A: My main role is to do research and teach two subjects, one is diplomacy and the other is foreign policy, which are related but different. I study the two theories and try to bridge these theories and China’s diplomatic and foreign policy practice. I teach both undergraduate and graduate level classes, both in Chinese and English; advise both MA and PhD students, both Chinese and international students, including students from the Yenching Academy. In addition, I also coordinate the administrative, academic, and graduate affairs as the Chair person of the Department of Diplomacy.

Q: And what is your favourite topic to teach in these roles?

A: I like all the courses and subjects that I teach and research. But my favourite research topics are those that bridge international theories of diplomacy and foreign policy and Chinese practices. My favourite classes are ones with students who actively engage in class discussion and raise challenging questions. I do not think university education is for professor to “teach” students knowledge but to teach them ways of thinking and the means to get knowledge. It is therefore an interactive, two-way process, which is also a learning process for teachers. If the students do not raise questions I am very disappointed because the class will be boring and it is hard to reach the fundamental goal of education.

Q: When it comes to Chinese Foreign Policy there can often be many misunderstandings, particularly in scholars who do not have a China studies background; can you tell us more about these misunderstandings and how to avoid them when it comes to the study of Chinese Foreign Policy?

A: When I first went abroad the major cultural shock that I experienced was in the different views I encountered on the subject of Chinese foreign policy. The world is so diverse and we grew up in completely different cultural and political contexts. Cross-cultural misunderstanding is normal and misunderstanding over foreign policy, a very political subject, is always mutual. My personal experience tells me that no view arises from nowhere, it always has its sources, reasons, and logic. We should not be surprised to hear different views, and we will not tempt to change different views once we understand the logic behind different views. Simply to consider others’ views as wrong and one’s own as correct will only lead to conflict and further misunderstanding.

To understand Chinese foreign policy one should not stop at knowing what China’s foreign policy is but indeed go one step further in order to understand the logic of Chinese foreign policy. I find this idea fascinating as an educator. Of course a professor should not simply reject dissent or new views as unfriendly, or even anti-China, rather he/she should try to understand the reason or logic behind such views. Only in such a way can we learn to understand each other rather than simply considering others as wrong and intending to change their views. In this regard, diplomacy can play some role since diplomacy is not only the means to implement foreign policy but also the means to seek common interests and mutual understanding through communication and consensus.

Q: Chinese foreign policy is viewed by some as nuanced and incoherent; some academics point to the rise of a more assertive view of China whereas the Ministry of Foreign Affairs often repeats its adherence to the principles of non-interference and peace in its foreign policy. Famously Xi said that China was an awakening lion but it was a peaceful one. What’s your take on this point and how can we reconcile the differences between reality and rhetoric?

A: Ever since China opened up in 1978, it has undergone great changes, not only in its economic power, which is most often discussed, but also in its identity, position in the world, international interests etc. One often neglected change is that the views and ideas among the Chinese people have also become diversified and the actors involved in China’s foreign affairs have pluralised. Different views do exist on China’s foreign policy. For instance, some consider Chinese foreign policy as too assertive while others consider it as too soft. This is because different views on China are shaped by different experiences.  I do not know where China is going since it is being pulled by different forces in different directions and therefore it simultaneously displays different profiles, but China is definitely no longer a monolithic unitary actor. Everything one sees, hears, and experiences in China is true, including both the reality and rhetoric. China appears differently in the eyes of beholders with different perspectives and practitioners also act differently. As the saying goes: “Where you stand depends on where you sit, and where you sit depends on where you stand”.

Q: As for future scholars, what is the best material to use for the study of Chinese Foreign Policy and what are some of the up-and-coming fields which we should pay more attention to in the future study?

A: I cannot list all the materials to study Chinese foreign policy, but there are two sorts of materials which are most important. One is the classic books and literature on Chinese foreign policy. Only a few books can be truly classified as classics; they offer the basic knowledge and starting point for learning about Chinese foreign policy. The other sort of material is the cache of the most recently published journal articles and book chapters on China’s foreign policy. Only when you know the classics are you able to follow the most recent trends. Whilst some of the classics form the basic teaching materials, I keep updating my teaching materials for my class every semester. This is a high demand since I have to keep abreast of the most recent research results on the topic of Chinese foreign policy.

In the past, scholars studying Chinese foreign policy tended to treat China as a unique foreign policy actor which was different from other countries. As China integrated into the international community China’s foreign policy began to share commonalities with many other countries. It is necessary and indeed imperative to bridge Chinese foreign policy studies with other more general theory in the field of foreign policy analysis. I think this is mutually beneficial because scholars of Chinese foreign policy can use existing foreign policy analysis models as a road map in their studies and foreign policy analysis theories can benefit from the Chinese experiences and practice. 

Q: Before we come to the end of the interview I was wondering if you had any comments on the Sino-US relationship in the Trump presidency era. Specifically, what changes will there be in store under the Trump administration?

A: Donald Trump is the perhaps the most controversial president elected in US history and he has attracted lots of attention from around the globe because he has caused a lot uncertainty, including within the realm of Sino-US relations. I do not know what will happen as far as bilateral relations are concerned; it is uncharted and difficult territory to predict. Bilateral relations will certainly become very interesting. It resembles dope for IR scholars and makes IR classes more appealing because students will find that IR is not an air-to-air discipline, it is instead about reality.

“China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” –U.S. President Donald Trump

3:47 PM – 2 Jan 2017, Source: Twitter


Q: One of the central principles of the Middle Kingdom Review is approaching China from an interdisciplinary perspective. What’s one innovation among scholars that is needed in the academic study of Chinese Foreign Policy?

A: Foreign policy is the principle or guidelines for managing relations with other countries. It is imperative to understand the views of others and it is dangerous to stick to one’s own view unilaterally. Open-mindedness is very important.

Q: What is your future direction over the next few years and what projects are you involved with right now?

A: I am finishing two books, one is Foreign Policy Analysis, which is on the methods of foreign policy studies, the other is Diplomacy: Formation and Transformation, which details how China’s diplomatic institutions and functions came into their current form and why and how it is changing. For the future, I will use both methods and theories to study Chinese foreign policy and China’s diplomacy. This is my “Chinese dream”.

Professor, many thanks for your time.

More information about Prof. Dr. Zhang Qingmin can be found on the advisory board page. 



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