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Shaping China's Foreign Policy: The Paradoxical Role of Foreign-Educated Returnees
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cheng li  is Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. Dr. Li’s publications include China’s Leaders: The New Generation (2001), China’s Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy (2008), and China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation (forthcoming 2010). He can be reached at . note u The author is indebted to Yinsheng Li for his research assistance. The author also thanks Jordan Lee and Robert O’Brien for suggesting ways in which to clarify the essay. Shaping China’s Foreign Policy: The Paradoxical Role of Foreign-Educated Returnees Cheng Li •  http://asiapolicy.nbr.org  • asia policy, number 10 (july 2010), 65–85 executive summary asia policy ThisessayexaminestheintriguingroleofWestern-educatedChinesereturnees in the formation of China’s foreign policy and strategic thinking. main argument Some widely perceived contradictions in China’s foreign policy and Sino-U.S. relations might be attributable to the paradoxical roles played by Westerneducated returnees. These contradictions include: (1) the gap between the Hu Jintao administration’s pronounced commitment to “all directional diplomacy” and the actual excessive emphasis placed on China’s relations with the U.S.; (2) the tension between broad Sino-U.S. cooperation, on the one hand, and the widespread view among Chinese elites concerning a “U.S. conspiracy against China,” on the other; and (3) the irony that a sustained, three-decade effort on the part of the U.S. to help promote educational exchanges has instead led to a relationship still rife with misunderstanding. policy implications There are several ways for U.S. policymakers to better engage with this emerging power’s political and intellectual elites: • By initiating an empirically grounded overall assessment of the effectiveness and limitations of the U.S. approach to China over the past three decades • By promoting a policy discussion of whether sweeping educational exchanges between the two countries can truly contribute to mutual reassurance • By becoming more cognizant of the sometimes fractious policy and political debates in China, especially the views of influential opinion leaders • By encouraging more exchanges between NGOs so as to enable Chinese professionals to come to the U.S. for one- or two-year periods as observers or trainees [ 67 ] li  •  shaping china’s foreign policy The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential. This is true not only of domestic politics but also of foreign policy. For outside observers, a sophisticated understanding of a given country’s domestic circumstances—the interactions among its political leadership, primary bureaucratic institutions, and larger socio-economic forces—is enormously helpful when analyzing the country’s foreign policy process and possible decision outcomes. One of the most daunting challenges in the case of China is that the number of influential actors in Chinese policy formation is no longer limited to a handful of top leaders. A variety of domestic constituencies—different factions, regions, industries (including some major state-owned companies), the military, interest groups, think tanks, civil society organizations, socio-economic forces, commercialized media outlets, and foreign or joint-venture firms—are all striving to exert greater influence over China’s foreign policy. One fast-growing new elite group that deserves particular attention is foreign-educated Chinese nationals who have returned to their homeland. Foreign-educated returnees, known as the “sea turtles” (haigui), are a diverse lot.1 They differ in terms of foreign experience, professional expertise, political affiliation, and world-view, as well as the ways in which they influence the Chinese foreign policymaking process. Some currently serve as advisors to top leaders; a few hold national leadership positions as ministers of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or as senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); many work in think tanks or universities; and some are considered political dissidents or radicals who exert influence on China’s domestic and foreign policy discourses primarily through new media such as the Internet. As a group, these returnees’ influence on Chinese foreign policy has grown increasingly salient over the course of the past decade. Despite the intuitive importance of this new policymaking driver, very few scholars, either in China or abroad, have made the haigui the focus...