What Use is Chinese Studies in a Pandemic? The Answer From an International Relations Perspective

Chi Zhang, University of Leeds

The ongoing, highly politicised Covid-19 pandemic puts Chinese studies to the test. Compared to hard sciences, Chinese studies seems to have lost its shine in search of an immediate cure. However, I argue that it is precisely in situations like this that Chinese studies should be reinvigorated, for the following reasons.

First, pandemics, with all the uncertainties associated with the unknown, cause widespread fear. In societies that are more interconnected than ever, uncertainties and fear may be more lethal than the coronavirus because of its impact on relationships rather than human faculties. It is, therefore, neither fair nor realistic to leave all the work to hard scientists. It is now painfully clear that we still know very little about this virus. While we know the first reported case of Covid-19 was found in Wuhan, China, the efforts to track down “patient zero” have become intertwined with political agendas to deflect attention and assign blame. Research on previous epidemics has demonstrated that it is notoriously difficult to track down “patient zero.” Such efforts, especially in the case of Covid-19, are inevitably associated with political agendas, as politicians are desperate to find someone to blame. Despite scientists” repeated clarifications that the virus was not man-made in a bio-lab, such speculation is prevalent in the current conspiracy theories in both China and the US. What is worse, while preprint servers allow scientists to make timely contributions to ongoing crises, the case of Covid-19 exposes the weakness of preprint servers as a medium for attention-grabbing research results, which could quickly turn into disinformation (Heimstädt, 2020).

Furthermore, as the virus is mutating, scientists will eventually unravel how effectively different types of the virus contract among people and how resilient the immunity is to mutations. But it takes time and the efforts of the entire academia to translate these research results into implications for human society. Before further evidence could prove otherwise, China is still considered where the virus originated, and therefore many of the implications are associated with China’s relations with other members of the international community. The US is further retreating from international organisations by cutting funding for the WHO for its alleged complicity with China, which may undermine the global efforts to contain the virus. The virus also raises questions about China’s changing role in the international community: how does China rescue its international status as so many state and non-state actors are requesting compensation? Why did China’s efforts to improve its soft power through “mask diplomacy” result in antipathy to its propaganda in some countries but not others?

Second, pandemics reinforce existing divisions, stereotypes, and discrimination. They heighten existing tensions and erode government legitimacy. These developments are adding fuel to the already burning Sino-US relations. Covid-19 creates a perfect environment to study the changing world order and how different regime types respond to disasters. The latter puts the acute contradiction between individual liberty and state/public security under the microscope. China’s complete lockdown of Wuhan was painful and costly, but effective in containing the spread of the virus. In the US, right-wing protestors against preventative restrictions chanted “Give me liberty or give me death,” and its coronavirus variation, “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19,” highlighting the unyielding favour towards liberty, even at the cost of security, of a considerable proportion of American population. This contrast offered the Chinese Communist Party the perfect opportunity to advocate its “institutional superiority” and promote its approach as a role model. This is precisely the moment when scholars of Chinese studies should step in, applying their expertise and academic rigour to examine the changing relationship between liberalism/neoliberalism and authoritarianism in the post-pandemic world.

Third, while scholars are busy witnessing history, they should also remind themselves that they are on the frontline of making history. Scholars of Chinese politics and international relations (IR) are walking a tightrope between the value-free ivory tower and dark world of politics. Inevitably, research in Chinese studies will be used by politicians to justify their policies. But at the same time, this provides the opportunity for Chinese experts to inform real-life politics, engage in policy-making, and generate social impact. As draconian counter-measures pressure governments to deflect attention from domestic grievances, a pessimistic view of post-pandemic international relations is taking a foothold. It envisions an increasing likelihood of a new Cold War, if not outright military confrontations in regions where tensions are unprecedently high. Scholars of Chinese studies holding various positions, either in government or academic institutions, bear great responsibilities, as their research, in one way or another, has the potential to shape the future of international relations.

Fourth, scholars of Chinese studies are embarking on a noble cause to bridge the long-existing gap between two parallel academic worlds. Chinese academia is still, to varying degrees across different disciplines, isolated, due to the concerns for “ideological security” and language barriers. This is especially true for politics and international studies. Conservative Chinese scholars and political elites accuse the West of dominating the academic discourse, that their paradigms are instrumental in promoting neoliberalism and a Western version of democracy and in reinforcing the existing asymmetry in “discourse power” rooted in a West-dominated power structure. On the other hand, some IR scholars in China tease themselves, or each other, with a joke that a talkative Beijing taxi driver probably knows better about international affairs than IR scholars. This is due to a lack of widely recognised standards that can be used to provide a fair evaluation of IR research published in China. Despite the (attempted) establishment of a “Chinese School of IR,” a huge number of scholarly works in China have been underexplored due to language barriers and a somewhat prevalent ideological undertone that diminishes their academic rigour.

Today the Chinese government is advocating the “confidence in its chosen path, its political system, its guiding theories, and China’s culture.” Stripping away the value-laden aspects of this slogan, to develop the confidence in Chinese studies, it is essential to engage in effective, evidence-based conversations with scholars, especially those who are from a different ideological upbringing.

This is exactly the direction towards which scholars of Chinese studies are moving: an increasing number of scholars of Chinese studies, regardless of their nationalities, are fluent in both Chinese and at least another language which allow them to engage in conservation and get familiar with the academic standards of both academic worlds. In an increasingly polarised world in which people are often forced to take side along ideological lines, scholars of Chinese studies can help heal the division by problematising the very processes of knowledge production, by revealing underlying ideological agendas, by triangulating sources of information, and by reinforcing shared and objective standards for truth in a post-truth world. Used in the right way, ideological differences may add depths and dimensions to, instead of obstructing, communication.

During the pandemic, the likelihood of dying from Covid-19 is not the only risk we are being exposed to. Unfounded claims cost lives, as evidenced by some recent news. In the context of the US–China rivalry, Covid-19 is one of the many factors that might trigger the outright collapse of the fragile peace since the end of the Cold War. Despite the political farce, scientists have been cooperating beyond state boundaries to develop the cure. I believe this momentum will undoubtedly find its way among scholars of Chinese studies as well.


Heimstädt, Maximilian (2020), “Between fast science and fake news: Preprint servers are political,” LSE Blogs, April 3, 2020. Accessed at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/04/03/between-fast-science-and-fake-news-preprint-servers-are-political