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Rosemary Foot | China’s UN Thinking and Behavior: The Attempt to Uncover the Decision-Making Inside Opaque Governments

September 16, 2020

Professor Rosemary Foot is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations and a Research Associate at the Oxford China Centre. In October 2014, she was elected to an Emeritus Fellowship of St Antony’s College. Her research interests and publications cover security relations in the Asia-Pacific, human rights, Asian regional institutions, China and regional and world order, and China-U.S. relations. During the QUAL talk, Dr. Foot introduced the main findings and methods from her recent book, China, the UN and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image.


China’s Involvement in the UN Human Protection Activity after Cold War

Dr. Foot began by discussing how she arrived at the central research question and the major findings from her book. Her broad research interest in China’s rise and global power transition led her to ask more specific questions about whether China represented a challenge to the liberal dimensions of global order and, if so, what kinds of challenges it posed to international organizations like the United Nations (UN). Dr. Foot argued that the UN is a valuable platform to make discoveries about Chinese belief, power, and image. Based on statements by Chinese government officials, including President Xi Jinping, China firmly intends to play a bigger role in the global order. This trend can be seen in the way China engages with the UN, such as through increased resources and leadership of UN agencies.

Dr. Foot also introduced differences in ideas about the concept of human protection between China and the UN. After the Cold War period, the UN security council appeared to move to a post-Westphalian direction and privileged the UN’s role in providing human protection. While China is associated strongly with a Westphalian vision of world politics, it has been far more active within the UN in this area. The UN primarily supports a three-pillar structure (Development, International Peace and Security, Human rights) that leads to human protection.  But, according to Dr. Foot, China emphasizes its triadic model — the benefits of economic development, a strong state, and domestic social stability.

Interpretive Approach: Finding Context through Discourse Analysis

With respect to methodology, Dr. Foot used interpretive approaches – found in constructivism, international society or English school theory – to address her book’s research questions. She focused on uncovering the social context in which decisions are made. As her book’s subtitle ‘Beliefs, Power, Image’ shows, she not only distinguished social structures from material aspects but also tried to analyze them together. For example, Chinese material power generates the shift which then underpin global norms closer to Chinese belief.

Dr. Foot underscored the importance of discourse analysis, finding it particularly valuable for the Chinese case in her work. She examined a range of statements made by high-level government officials in different settings,  and then analyzed the extent to which the discourse changed over time or remained reasonably static. Discourse analysis involves looking at written documentation and verbal statements, such as tracing the preoccupation of central leadership by examining the pronouncements in government related think tanks and Chinese scholarly works. Chinese scholarship, in particular, operates within a constrained environment, meaning that academic works can often provide an indication of elite level debates. Chinese scholars are sometimes also important actors in decision making because they constitute the source of advice to the central leadership, collaborate with government officials, and help government projects.

Tips for Using Interview Methods

Along with discourse analysis, Dr. Foot suggested tips related to interview methodology. In her own work when she conducted interviews she usually added and adapted questions as the discussion proceeded., and did not record interviews because of confidentiality. Interviewing diverse actors such as diplomats, international servant, and journalists are certainly important in uncovering the Chinese context and thinking. However, she emphasized the importance of not relying extensively on the interview data because it is less satisfactory for readers due to issues of confidentiality.

In the Q&A session, Dr. Foot talked about the difficulty of balancing the importance of transparency in interviewing data with the great sensitivity of operating in a Chinese confidential environment. In terms of how to approach interviewees, she used the contacts she already had and then with snowball sampling built a credible range of new connections.