Yan Xuetong's criticism & suggestions on China's international relations studies

Top IR scholar preaches "more on academics, less on policy and online fame"

Yan Xuetong, Professor and Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, published a brief critique of China’s international relations discipline last week.

Yan’s article on Chinese Social Sciences Today under the Chinese Academy of Sciences is in fact the speech he gave on July 6, 2021, at the conclusion of the ​第十四届政治学与国际关系学术共同体年会 14th Annual Meeting of Chinese Community of Political Science and International Studies. The piece is also available on Tsinghua’s website.

The meeting is the biggest of its kind in China and in this year immediately followed the Ninth World Peace Forum, which was attended by many foreign diplomats including ambassadors in Beijing and was held at the same location. Your Pekingnologist heard quite some interesting thoughts there, as well as the big applause from the ballroom when Yan delivered the speech.

Without further ado, below is a translation by Pekingnology.

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Development orientation and reflection of China's international relations discipline

Since the reform and opening-up, China's international relations research has gone through decades of development and has now entered a brand-new stage. Nowadays, the world is undergoing major changes unseen in a century, and relevant discipline development is constantly adapting to the great changes of the times. How to scientifically and accurately understand the development trend of China's international relations discipline, promote the return of fundamental and theoretical research on international relations, and continuously enhance the scientific level of the discipline has become important problems that need to be solved urgently for colleagues in China's international relations academic communities.

The Motive Force for the Development of International Relations Discipline

There are two major driving forces for the development of disciplines. The first is the natural growth of knowledge, which means the increase of knowledge would continuously form new disciplines. For example, classical physics was first developed, then relativistic astrophysics and quantum mechanics. With the acquisition and increase of new knowledge, new disciplines are born. 

The path of knowledge accumulation can be divided into two patterns: First, with continuous development, disciplines are subdivided into many different branches. For example, after physics and chemistry become two disciplines, chemistry is divided into polymer chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and so on. The other pattern is interdisciplinary integration into a new discipline. For example, physics and chemistry are integrated into the physicochemical subject. 

The second is to promote the development of new disciplines under human guidance, which can also be divided into two types. One is guided by the government. For example, in the first decade of the 21st century, China's Marxist theory was designated (by the government) as a first-level discipline, no longer being a second-level discipline under the first-level discipline of political science. The other is guided by the academic community. For example, to promote international and regional studies in the New Era, a group of academic pacemakers and young or middle-aged "backbone teachers" are working hard to make it a [government-designated] first-level discipline.

The development of international relations discipline is the result of these two driving forces. In addition, the development of a discipline is inseparable from the promotion of scientific methods. Historical experience shows that only by adhering to scientific methods can we defeat regression in the real world and promote academic progress. 

At present, mankind has entered an era of "uneasy peace", that is, a world without war but full of fear because people have a new understanding of the uncertainty of international politics. In this context, big data provides more possibilities for exploring new research paths and methods for international relations research. The concept of the big data research method is that we don't need to know what the causal relationship is, and we don't need to pay attention to how uncertain things are, but exhaust all the data to reach the conclusion directly. Therefore, in terms of scientific methods, it is appropriate to take an open mind to it rather than deny it. International issues on different levels can be studied by different methods, and what is important is to improve the reliability of research methods.

Four Judgments on the Development Trend of China's International Relations Discipline

The development of China's international relations discipline has shown the following four trends:

First, basic and theoretical research is being weakened. Among the keynote discussion topics of the 14th Annual Meeting of the Chinese Community of Political Science and International Studies in 2021, there are fewer discussion topics on international relations theories, international relations database construction, and basic theories. As far as the publication of academic journals is concerned, articles published in academic journals on international relations have increased, but intellectual innovation has decreased. The main reason is that there are more policy-oriented studies, and the innovation by policy-oriented articles lies not in knowledge-based innovation, but in the practicality of solving specific problems. However, basic research can often explore the mechanism and principle behind issues and can form a profound theoretical exposition of research problems, thus having a great impact on disciplines. When a hot international issue or an urgent problem is solved, those policy suggestions become "antiques". If there are more scholars in policy studies, there will be fewer scholars creating academic knowledge, which leads to a decrease in the amount of knowledge created.

Second, the return of the tendency to oppose using scientific methods to study international relations. Whether the scientific method is based on classical physics, quantum mechanics, big data, or other scientific knowledge, using them to study international relations can improve the scientific level of this discipline. The current trend against scientific research methods has picked up. Some academic journals at leading universities on international relations have published successive articles criticizing the scientific approach to the study of international relations, saying that the scientific approach has multiple flaws. The scientific approach certainly has flaws, because every research method has flaws. However, compared with traditional research approaches, the scientific approach has two advantages. One is that it has fewer flaws than the former, and the other is that it can be improved continuously. The scientific approach can avoid many inherent flaws of traditional approaches, mainly the issue of unreliability. In fact, to oppose the scientific methods of studying international relations is to oppose the improvement of research methods and the scientification of international relations research.

Third, the admissions threshold is decreasing, the level of professional education declining, and the market for errors is increasing. For example, the admissions threshold to international relations majors for undergraduates is lowering. International relations has low entry scores compared with other majors. Also, in the postgraduate entrance examinations, the specialization of examination questions has decreased, with less examination of the fundamentals of the discipline. International relations teachers are emphasizing professionalism less and expressing their views more in other areas. All of the above practices are lowering the bar for international relations majors. 

Fourth, judging academic achievements by standards in the society rather than academic standards. Online articles that are read over 100,000 times on WeChat have become equivalent to Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) articles, which is equaling online celebrity to the level of academic status. Online celebrity is the result of the market of public opinion with divergent thinking, and many related articles are imaginary without an objective basis. In fact, innovation is based on the formation of correctly divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking can help scholars transcend the constraints of existing knowledge and form infinite answers or opinions, but it depends on convergent thinking to eliminate all unreasonable answers and scientifically test several answers that have not been excluded. Replacing academic standards with influence in the society leads to regarding the divergent thinking within the current "online celebrity" articles as innovation, which is a subjective imagination.

Four Suggestions on China’s international relations studies

China's international relations studies have gone through decades of development. In view of its existing problems, the following four suggestions are put forward.

First, more research on academic subjects, fewer policy recommendations. Foreign policy is formulated by the state’s decision-makers. Ordinary people don't understand the specific landscape of diplomacy, so their policy suggestions are unlikely to be operatable. Scholars should devote their energies to academic studies, aka facts and reasoning, which have strong vitality; the outcomes of policy research are only applied to specific issues, which is short-lived. In order to gain strong academic vitality and lay a solid foundation for policymaking, it is suggested that we should do more basic academic research and make fewer policy suggestions.

Second, learn more about what you cannot do, and object less to what you don't understand. The premise of academic opposition is to knowledge on the subject to which you object. For example, the premise of objections to the quantitative analysis method should have been that you have mastered this method. Nowadays, some people are critical of academic achievements they cannot understand. This practice of opposing what you don't understand is a symptom of ignorance. There are two possibilities if you can't understand something: one is that the person who wrote it was wrong; the other is that readers lack the professional knowledge and ability to understand, and the latter happens frequently. Researchers need to first learn what they can’t do and what they don't understand, so as to increase their existing knowledge.

Third, pursue more professional studies and indulge less in commentaries on current affairs. There is a division of labor in society; commentaries on current events are mainly the work of journalists, and the work of scholars is mainly to study academic issues, write academic articles, write books, write textbooks, and build databases. At present, in the international relations community, there are few scholars who build databases and few teachers who write textbooks. International relations scholars should devote more energy and time to their own work.

Fourth, uphold academic standards more and care less about online feedbacks. Measuring academic development by online feedback has a certain reference value, but it cannot be taken as an absolute or even the main standard. Academic research needs to have its own professional standards in evaluations, and by testing our results more through academic standards, the academic level will continue to improve.

Translated by Alexander Wang, copyedited by Zhixin Wan, and reviewed by Zichen Wang, founder of Pekingnology.

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A guest post by
Journalist from "China state-affiliated media"
A guest post by
Journalism student at Tsinghua University. Ex intern at Bloomberg, China Central Television, and the UN. I write about China’s society, culture, and ordinary people in between.
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