“The ISA Underestimated Us!”


Last week at ISA I attended a panel on “The End of the Western and the Rise of Chinese IR Theory”. After my experiences with panels on Latin American IR (blog post will follow) and a general low attendance of any panel, I expected maybe half a dozen interested listeners. However, what I got when I entered was an over-crowded room with too few chairs and people standing in the hallway to get some glimpse of what was going on instead! Given the ratio of room size and people actually showing up, it was the best attended panel I have seen this whole week. As the chair Zhang Yongjin put it: “ISA underestimated us!”

For anybody familiar with the discourse on a rising Chinese IR theory, or even Chinese School of IR, not much new was gained from this panel. But the panelists definitely achieved to engage their audience into the topic.

Very symptomatically of the literature on non-Western IR theory, all but one presentation dealt with the questions of whether there is, should, can, and/or will be something like a Chinese IRT. For example, Han Xueqing from Tongji University presented ten hypotheses about why there is, or rather cannot be, any IR theorizing in China. Amongst her arguments was the claim that IR theory has a status of religion and in China there is no room for that. Furthermore she argued that the universal nature of most IR theorizing is at odds with the Chinese way of thinking. Finally, she reminded the audience that China has been oblivious of the affairs of countries that have nothing to do with China, and is thus traditionally uninterested in systemic questions. Anybody slightly familiar with Chinese history might see truths, but also flaws in this argumentation.

The other papers dealt with Chinese intellectual history and how a Chinese IRT could be enlightened by it (Ren Xiao, Fudan), the three epistemic turns in Chinese IR scholarship (Zhang Yongjin, Bristol), and different learning curves for Chinese IR scholars (Richard Weixing Hu, Hong Kong). The only paper on actual theorizing was presented by Shih Chih-yu from National Taiwan University. She presented some tentative thinking on state interaction in the case of non-shared ideologies. I will review her paper in a subsequent blog post, since it would go beyond the purpose of this one to do it now.

Finally, some literature recommendations for those who would have liked to join the crowd, and engage in the rising force of Chinese IRT:
— Qin, Yanqing (2007): Why is there no Chinese international relations theory?, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 7(3), 313-340.
— Wang, Yiwei (2009): China: Between copying and constructing, In: Arlene Tickner and Ole Waever, International Relations Scholarship Around the World, London and New York: Routledge, 103-119.
— Zhao, Tingyang (2009): A Political Philosophy in terms of All-Under-Heaven (Tianxia), Diogenes Vol. 56(1), 5-18.

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