Zi Zhongyun, a retired scholar specializing in U.S.-China relations, is highly respected on both sides of the Pacific for her six decades of work as a researcher, diplomat, linguist, translator and writer. During the dawn of U.S.-PRC relations in the early 1970’s, she was teamed up with Zhou Enlai’s associate, Wang Bingnan to attend the huge task of bridging the gap between the U.S. and China.
Given the precipitous decoupling going on at the moment, it’s as if her life’s work has come full circle.
This April 15, she published an article talking about the intersection of big power politics and current political cleavages innocuously entitled “Some thoughts about the study of International Relations.”
Right at the outset of her essay, she suggests that fellow scholars devote excessive attention to theorizing about the “great powers” and they have the regrettable tendency to conflate a country with the thoughts of its leader.
Zi goes on to gently chide IR scholars for treating imaginary constructs, such as a “nation” as more real than the people of whom a nation is composed of, seldom taking the thoughts of citizens into account.
To illustrate this, she quotes Ukraine President Zelensky, who, when recently challenged to define “victory” described it as “being able to save as many lives as possible.”
The 93-year-old scholar found his words deeply moving, for it stands in such contrast to the usual political rhetoric about goals of war focused on the occupation of territory and taking control of governance, even at the cost of sacrificing many lives on both sides.
She also bemoans the tendency in IR circles to attribute too much agency to foreign affairs while neglecting domestic affairs. Zi mentions Versailles, Yalta and the collapse of the Soviet Union as cases where blame was unduly attributed to external factors while insufficient attention was paid to domestic cleavages and dynamics. To put it in simple terms, the world order is not just defined by the victors of war, but by internal social factors as well.
Zi is an accomplished polyglot who has translated both English and French literature into Chinese (Honoré de Balzac, Alain de Botton, Willa Cather), so it’s perhaps not surprising that she should hark to Charles Dicken’s portraits of human suffering to make a point about the limits of national greatness.
She maintains that the “happiness of the people” is not proportional to the size of territory” using the example of “the age of Dickens” which was the apex of empire in Victorian Britain.
Zi further notes that the countries with the best quality of life rankings, such as those in Scandinavia, are not necessarily big or aggressive.
She describes her own journey wrestling with the dynamics of history, admitting she once argued with Americans about rapid development of NATO because it put too much pressure on Russia, but that was in the 1990s during Yeltsin’s time, and expectations were high that Russia would transform itself.
She now feels too much attention was paid to the great powers, including the U.S. and Russia, and not enough to the smaller countries of Eastern Europe. The prevailing chauvinist view is epitomized by the UN, where all countries are equal, except when they aren’t, as demonstrated by the veto power invested in the permanent members of the Security Council.
She acknowledges that Russia has historic security concerns, but asks – "What about the security concerns of Eastern European countries?”
“From Tsarist Russia to the Soviet Union there was aggression, partition and oppression of Eastern European countries such as Poland (including the heinous Katyn incident) - is that not part of history?”
If only Russia had focused on reforming internal affairs and improving people’s livelihood in the past 20 years rather than expanding externally and restoring hegemony, “it would be a blessing rather than a curse.”
She also finds it odd that the U.S. is simultaneously described as being in steep decline, yet it is credited with a kind of magical omnipotence as the instigator of all sorts of events, from popular uprisings and demonstrations to forcing Europe to support Ukraine.
Based on my research monitoring Chinese TV news, I might add this is precisely the media line coming out of Beijing in regard to Ukraine: the U.S. did it, NATO’s at fault, Russia had no choice.
Russia is a victim. Nowhere in all this media noise does Ukraine—the country under invasion—get respect as a player with agency of its own.
Keeping the argument ensconced in academic terms, she says Chinese scholarship in the social sciences today is not sufficiently "people-oriented" which has resulted in an impoverishment of the field.
Traditional academics give too much agency to the big players and not enough to the others. “Every nation is made up of millions of living individuals with their own will and interests.”
In today’s dangerous world with so much at stake, Zi Zhongyun’s gentle reminder to fellow scholars, to think more in terms of people, less in terms of abstractions, couldn’t have come at a better time.