5th May Highlights

Symbolic power and co-existing narratives in China-CEEC relations, the Eurasian Landbridge and China’s Middle East leverage.

Photo credit: Belt and Road Centre

Academic View: Symbolic Power, Dreams and Fears

I think literature is far more suited to a critical view from the ivory tower of academia than is politics, and so I generally shy away from clunky theoretical terminology when it comes to discussing international relations.

At the same time, I think it’s important to consider the fluffier, more obscure realms of politics every now and again. Leaving the “real world” behind and considering abstract terminology can actually have a creative impact on your thinking. We’ll inevitably fall short, but I think everyone should aim to come at topics from a variety of angles and disciplines – especially from those perspectives we instinctively distrust.

Both these papers are about Central European – China relations, and they’re both worth diving into, especially if you don’t often read sentences like:

A Bourdieu(s)ian approach emphasizes the complexity of social mechanisms and the function of concealment…


With the so-called ‘illiberal turn’ in CEE, the previous dominance of liberal democratic teleology has given way to a process of quest for a new, genuine, nationally framed ideology, creating a space for the emergence of alternative narrative sources of inspiration or finding moral justification – including China.

The first paper is essentially about framing China’s dominance of the 16+1 fora in terms of what the author calls “symbolic power”, i.e. the ability to not only win the argument but to shape the thinking of others through the force of narratives.

Taken as a whole, the paper isn’t overly convincing, but it’s peppered with good ideas, for example:

China’s symbolic capital and symbolic power do not simply stem from its newfound economic clout, but rather from the discourse on “the rise of China”, one of the central themes in the field of global political economy that has inspired a process of adaptation of global discourses.

With the ritualistic repetition the narratives in question (such as “win-win cooperation”, “mutual benefit”, “common destiny”, and so on) may initially appear prosaic and insipid, but over time are internalized as legitimate principles by participating actors and used in their speech as well.

Nevertheless, by the time of the establishment of 16+1, the CEE countries had gradually decoupled their ideological stance against communism from their China policy…

The second paper is similarly valuable for moments of insight rather than an overall clarity. The basic premise is that two co-existing narratives – “China threat” and “China Opportunity” – describe the local discourse on Sino-Serbian relations, but that both are undermined by empirical evidence. The evidence bit isn’t very convincing, but the idea of two co-existing narratives, and the description of these narratives, is useful.

A note on the paywall: If you want to read these papers, but quite understandably don’t want to pay $35 for 24-hour access, there are plenty of ways around the paywall that I probably shouldn’t spell out here… Just spend a few moments googling “how to read academic articles for free” and remember that these authors aren’t being paid for their work anyhow…

Expert View: The Eurasian Landbridge

I’ve wittered on enough as it is, so I won’t package the next few recommendations so loquaciously… This article is a must read for those who need to mentally decouple China’s European rail-links from the Belt and Road narrative. Long story short: The Eurasian Landbridge isn’t something Xi personally cooked up one morning whilst thinking about his Belt and Road action plans – there’s an economic rationale and international reasoning behind the routes.

Expert View: China’s Clout in the Middle East

Finally, this is a good read, especially if the Middle East isn’t your area of expertise. I’ve long found it interesting how China manages to forge relationships with sworn enemies – something Wade Shepard also touched upon in The China Road’s interview with him last month.

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