While the future of Chinese diplomacy is without doubt exceptionally intelligent, talented, earnest, and hard-working, many budding diplomats have been immersed in a socialisation process that may not equip them to deal with the fast-paced global environment in which they will find themselves.
Recently, an article was published describing the global public relations challenge looming for China as its experienced and savvy diplomats age, with no clear replacements lined up to take their places. While the shortage in numbers of diplomats is important, what is also noteworthy is how new diplomats are being trained to think and operate in the international arena.
I taught courses in International Relations and International Development at the China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing from 2009-2010. Unlike most other universities, CFAU is not overseen by the Ministry of Education but by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the past, CFAU was the feeder school for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however nowadays, while many CFAU students still want to be diplomats, a number will go on to other careers. This is often due to them being unable to pass the extremely gruelling civil service exam.
Foreigners are ‘outside country people’
The first and most fundamental element in students’ socialisation process is the overriding sense of identifying themselves as part of the great imagined community of “we Chinese” above all else.
Students would often describe world affairs in terms of “women zhongguoren” (“we Chinese”, translating as “middle country people”) and “nimen waiguoren” (“you foreigners”, literally “outside country people”) — a vast and generally undifferentiated mass of everyone else.
Three or four years, or sometimes more, of living in tiny rooms shared with at least six other students, bunk beds end to end, with all their worldly possessions in a little cupboard, erode students’ feelings of individual entitlement and inculcate a sense of shared identity and destiny — as Chinese.
Students also tended to articulate strong views around what China’s role in the world should look like in the future. They argued that the era of hegemony was at an end, and it was now the time for a multipolar international order. They saw China as one of these poles, of course, with others including the US, the EU, and Russia.
China was almost without exception understood to be a force for good, a peaceful and benevolent actor, and the leader and representative voice for the developing world.
This was based on the premise that China — according to them — had always been a peaceful world player, who, although powerful in the past, had never viciously conquered or invaded others. The example of the Ming dynasty maritime explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) regularly featured in the discussion.
US ‘hypocritical’, Japan ‘aggressive’
At the same time as China was seen to be inherently peaceful, other countries were also understood to have immutable characteristics. This particularly applied to Japan and the US.
Japan was generally described as expansionist, untrustworthy, imperialist and aggressive.
Students expressed their antagonism towards Japan extremely vigorously.
On one occasion in my classroom, a student suggested it might be time to move on and forgive Japan. In response, her classmates almost competed to decry her as a traitor, and accuse her of not loving China enough.
Students associated the US with hypocrisy, hegemony, and sticking one’s nose into other people’s business. Indeed, the US was used as a metaphor to explain to me the Chinese word for “interference” (“gan she”) on more than one occasion.
Whether or not students truly, genuinely believed these ideas is of course an important question. But perhaps more important is their apparent acceptance that these were the correct ideas to publicly articulate, as if they believed them.
Overseas study seen as liability
While not all CFAU students will become diplomats, and not all diplomats are former CFAU students, the CFAU experience is not unique. These experiences resonate across China’s tertiary sector, particularly at universities in Beijing.
And the ability to think and express the correct ideas is one of the most valued attributes in a Chinese student. Indeed, when I was teaching, I was chastised for not simply explaining what the “right” answers were by way of one-way monologue lectures, which the students could then note down and present back to me at exam time.
When I said I didn’t care what they answered as long as they made a strong argument to prove their case, they were genuinely confused. One student told me he was advised not to undertake a masters course overseas before applying for the Chinese civil service because learning to think in non-Chinese ways would be a liability, not an asset, for his application.
This trend of training for future Chinese diplomats is not set to change in the near future. If anything, under Xi Jinping’s increasing control over universities, the range of “correct” is likely to ossify.
We cannot assume that future generations of Chinese diplomats will be more open and flexible. Political loyalty will be valued above all else as a measure of performance, leading to more, not fewer, instances of unsubtle diplomatic behaviour, such as we saw during the Kimberley Process in Western Australia in 2017.
The future of Chinese diplomacy is not just challenged by a shortage of diplomats. Beijing ardently wants to sell a more positive message of China to the world. In a world that will need sophisticated flexibility and savoir faire, Chinese diplomacy may struggle to be up to the task.