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Reappraising the Chinese School of International Relations: a postcolonial perspective

This article was written by Yih-Jye Hwang
This article was published on

My latest paper published in Review of International Studies revisits the enterprise of the Chinese School of IR from within the analytical framework of the power/resistance nexus put forward by Michel Foucault, Homi K Bhabha and Gayatri C Spivak.

A rising China, together with the rise of interest in non-Western thought in the field of IR, have had a positive significance for the development of Chinese IR theory. Many Chinese scholars believe that a Chinese School of IR should be established. For these advocates, Chinese IR needs to develop its own epistemological system to understand international relations from China’s perspective. Among them, Yan Xuetong’s moral realism, Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia system, and Qin Yaqing’s theory of relationality are most influential. Yan’s moral realism tries to learn from the concept of ‘humane authority’ in Chinese pre-Qin thought as a source of knowledge and ideas in order to reconceptualise the realist view of power. According to Yan, humane authority is not something that one can strive for; rather, it is acquired by winning the hearts of the people through setting an example of virtue and morality. Zhao's Tianxia system draws from an idealised version of the Tianxia system of the Zhou dynasty as the paradigmatic model. He argues that the system was an all-inclusive geographical, psychological, and institutional term. Qin’s theory is centred around the concept of relationality, or guanxi, an idea that is embedded in Confucianism. From a Chinese relational perspective, the international society is a complex web of relations made up of states related to one another in different ways.

The nascent popularity of the Chinese School has received much criticism in the IR subject area however, the most important of which are the following two claims. The first is that the Chinese School’s references to historical documents and classics are either inaccurate or overly romanticised. It is anachronistic, and also infers an imperious form of Chinese exceptionalism – a kind of wishful thinking that China will be different from any other great power in its behaviour or disposition. The second criticism is that the knowledge developed by the Chinese School is only used to legitimize the rise of China. It mainly aims to safeguard China’s national interests and to legitimise its one-party system. The above two criticisms are valid, but not unique to China, and by this standard much other work in IR would also have to be discounted. American IR scholarship also uses source material anachronistically, as critics of realism have observed, and its agenda often reflects US interests and concerns. As E H Carr noted in his letter to Hoffman in 1977, ‘What is this thing called international relations in the “English speaking countries” other than the “study” about how to “run the world from positions of strength”’?

Of course, making comparisons between American hegemony and its connection to mainstream IR on the one hand, and the rise of China with the Chinese School on the other, does not by itself justify the enterprise of the Chinese School from the critical IR perspective. It is worth mentioning that on various occasions critics like William Callahan have been cautious about the Chinese School as merely another familiar hegemonic design. To some extent, Chinese School scholars are indeed replicating the mainstream western IR theory and its problems. Attempts by Yan, Zhao and Qin to reinvigorate traditional Chinese concepts – i.e. humane authority, the Tianxia system, and relationality – actually channel the Chinese Schools of IR into American mainstream IR discourse – i.e. a realist notion of power, a liberal logic of cosmopolitanism, and a constructivist idea of relationality, as I argued in this paper. The Chinese School uses, against the West, concepts and themes that mainstream IR currently uses against the non-Western world.

At first thought, their concerns seem to represent a reasonable response to the Chinese School from a critical perspective. Foucault notably contends that ‘humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination’. What Foucault tries to remind us is that, when one thinks of a successful resistance, that is, the dissolution of an old subjectivity, one merely produces a new subjectivity, another form of domination. There exists a circular relationship between domination and resistance. From this perspective, the development of the Chinese School accompanied with the rise of China would potentially become another form of hegemony. Nevertheless, what I want to ask in this paper is: if the enterprise of the Chinese School as resistance against Western hegemony turns out to be another form of domination, then does that mean resistance is ultimately pointless? Is it possible that imitating Western discourse can constitute a kind of critical resistance? To put the question differently: How and to what extent can the rise of China together with its knowledge taken from the CS constitute an effective form of critical resistance against what we have normally taken for granted in IR? To answer those questions, it is worth looking into Bhabha’s notion of ‘mimicry’.

For Bhabha, ‘mimicry’ is a complex, ambiguous, and contradictory form of representation, and it is constantly producing difference/différance and transcendence. As Bhabha notes (1994: 86), ‘the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence: in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, it excess, its difference’.   As a result, imitation by the Chinese School is not simply to duplicate the Western discourse, but to change Western concepts and practices to bring them more into line with Chinese local conditions. ‘Almost the same, but not quite’. Thus, non-Western scholars including the Chinese School can still make novel and innovative contributions to the literature of IR through hybridization, mimicry and the modification of the initial notions, as Turton and Freire (2016) note. More importantly, this mimicry is a concealed and destructive form of resistance in the anti-colonial strategy. Firstly, imitating the West will create similarities between non-Western theories and Western theories, which in turn confuses the identity of the West. Moreover, the relationship between the ‘enunciator’ and the one who is articulated can potentially be reversed. Whether in support or in opposition, mainstream IR scholarship has been forced to respond to various ideas, concepts and approaches proposed by Chinese School scholars. Thirdly, the Chinese School also verifies that the European experience is a local experience. This is readily exposed when the starting points of mainstream IR – often taken for granted – are used in different contexts.

Nevertheless, there seems to be an issue at the heart of the enterprise of the Chinese School from Bhabha’s colonial resistance perspective. To Bhabha (1994: 37), ‘hierarchical claims to the inherent originality or “purity” of cultures are untenable, even before we resort to empirical historical instances that demonstrate their hybridity’. Undeniably, the Chinese School has manifested several degrees of essentialism in its account of Chinese history and tradition. It has indeed juxtaposed China and the West, essentialising and fixating on the existence of ‘Chinese culture’, which in essence is hybrid. When Orientalist IR meets Occidentalist IR, hatred and conflict will become possible and perpetuate questionable practices in world politics. In that context, the enterprise of the Chinese School might close down the creative space needed to imagine a different way of engagement. Essentialism is something of a taboo in the critical line of IR scholarship. However, when critical theory’s criticism of essentialism is too extreme, it may threaten the base on which resistance depends. In order to meaningfully challenge hegemony, we need a site of agency, or a subject.

The problem with Bhabha’s thought is that he ignores the asymmetric power relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. Bhabha’s notion of hybridity is at best a marginal zone in a truly dualistic colonial relationship. No matter how much the identity of the coloniser and the colonised are disturbed, it is difficult to fundamentally change the true colonial relationship between ruler and ruled, between the hegemonic and inferior culture. Moreover, Bhabha also implicitly presupposes that the colonial/power relationship will eventually be broken regardless of whether the colonised actively resist or not, similar to Foucault’s view which contends that resistance happens within relations of power. This is a problem. Because the colonisers can simply ignore the inherent contradictions of the colonial discourse, continue to carry out colonial rule unscathed, and stably (even with some interference present) maintain their self-identity. As a result, the Foucaudian or Bhabha-style of micro-resistance of the colonised was not enough to overthrow the overall structure of power relations. The subversion of the colonial power structure certainly requires hybrid micro-resistance, but it also requires dual oppositional resistance strategies and rebellious actions. A theoretical difficulty derived from this point of view is the extent to which a degree of essentialism is desirable. To avoid Bhabha’s and Foucault’s trap, I suggested that we need to turn our gaze to Spivak’s notion of ‘re-worlding’ and strategic essentialism.

To Spivak, essentialism is the object to be deconstructed, however, deconstruction depends on essentialism. As she stated (1990: 11), ‘I think it’s absolutely on target to take a stand against the discourse of essentialism…But strategically, we cannot’. On the issue of feminism, Spivak opposes the so-called feminine nature. She believes that it is practically impossible to define ‘women’. An implication of defining women is the creation of a strict binary opposition, a dualistic view of gender, and as a deconstructionist, she is against positing such dualistic notions. Although she opposes defining an absolute and fixed nature of women, from the standpoint of political struggle, she believes that the historical and concrete nature of women still exists and can be used as a weapon of struggle. In light of Spivak’s thought, it is inevitable to adhere to essentialism to a certain extent when engaging in post-Western theories, although we must be vigilant. In other words, the Chinese School as a ‘strategy’ is not permanent but is specific to the situation of non-Western voices needing to be heard on the global stage, noting that the main challenge in the IR discipline today is to address the legacy of ‘Western hegemony’, in Gramsci's terminology.

Hence, I conclude that the enterprise of the Chinese School can still be justified because it can be regarded as a reverse discourse; mimicking yet altering the original meanings of the taken-for-granted concepts, ideas and principles used by mainstream IR scholars. Moreover, with the judicious use of strategic essentialism, the Chinese School can potentially be one local group in a wider effort to contest diffused and decentred forms of Western domination through linking various struggles to form a unified ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’ of post-Western IR in the discipline. For post-Western IR, strategic essentialism will not be outdated. The critical theory movement in IR has made great progress in striving for equal rights for non-Western countries through the unremitting efforts of several decades. However, the critical IR scholarship still has a long way to go. Due to the imbalance of development across different regions in the world, the differences and disputes among various groups in the critical IR scholarship will inevitably persist. With the judicious use of strategic essentialism, the critical IR scholarship can form a collective that seeks common ground while reserving differences and fighting for common goals. However, when applying strategic essentialism, in addition to focusing on the differences between different (national) schools, we should also pay attention to the equality between people of different cultures and regional orientations; and remain wary of harming other vulnerable groups in order to improve the status of certain countries, as seen in the case of the rise of China. The Chinese School might one day turn out to be another form of domination in the near future. At that time, we will need to reflect on our reappraisal of the Chinese School today. Strategic essentialism will always be a powerful weapon in the critical tradition of IR discipline.

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