Who is Wang Jisi ?
Everything you need to know about Wang Jisi,
President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
Wang Jisi (王缉思, Wáng Jīsī) is a professor and President of the School of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. Wang received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Peking University. He has held visiting fellowships at the University of Oxford, University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Princeton University.
His scholarly research covers U.S. foreign policy, great power politics, China-U.S. relations, and East Asian security. In 2005 and 2012, he was named a Top 100 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine.
Skip to Wang's full background.
In 1983, Wang was hired first as a lecturer, then Associate Professor, and later Associate Head of the Department of International Politics at Peking University. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Wang also served as a Visiting Fellow to St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University (1982 – 1983), University of California, Berkeley (1984 – 1985), and University of Michigan (1990 – 1991). He was later appointed Associate Director (1991) and later Director (1993) of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He was invited to oversee the Institute of International Strategic Studies of the Central Party School between 2001 and 2009, and served as a member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2008 to 2016.
Wang was later appointed Dean, then President, of the School of International Studies at Peking University. He stepped down from the deanship in 2014.
Wang currently serves as President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
Two years after the Cultural Revolution, Wang was admitted into the International Politics program at Peking University in 1978, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
On February 22 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, hosted a special guest who had traveled from afar – special not only given his academic standing and reputation, but also given the near-total cessation of high-level in-person exchanges and visits between prominent academics, intellectuals, and think-tankers between China and the United States in the age of COVID-19.
The eponymous guest was no stranger to America – he had spent years of his professional career teaching, researching, and lecturing in the land. Indeed, America comprises a core constituent of his research interest, and continues to remain a country where he has many a “good friend and close colleague”, as he addressed his host.
The visitor went on to offer a detailed, engaged, and responsive account of Chinese attitudes towards America in the 2020s – one that provided the audience with unique insights into the “mutual distrust” undergirding Sino-American relations, a phenomenon that he deftly analogized with tensions between the President and Vice-President as portrayed in the American television series House of Cards.
The guest was Professor Wang Jisi, professor and former Dean of the School of International Studies, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University, and honorary president of the Chinese Association for American Studies. Beyond all these accolades and important positions, Wang is also one of the most lucid, emphatic, and erudite voices in international relations and political science in China.
Offering a sharp departure from the more monolithic and trenchant tones of other academics in China, Wang proceeded to acknowledge both the emerging consensus in Washington that China is a challenge and competitor to the United States, as well as broad variety of possible responses embraced by American policymakers in face of China’s competitive rivalry. He also praised the Biden administration for its “expertise on China”, comprising of both old and new faces.
Wang went on to discuss the nature of Sino-Russian ties, the possibility of war in Ukraine (Wang’s speech occurred two days prior to Russia’s invasion), and the Taiwan Strait. However, he concluded on a more optimistic note, hoping for “some kind of stabilization or restoration of the current relationship”.
Coinciding with the rapidly unfolding events under the Russian invasion of Ukraine and broader antagonism dividing the two sides of the Pacific, Wang’s visit to Washington – one by an internationalist from one capital to another of the world’s two most powerful states – occurred at a watershed moment of global politics. His writings, theorization, and approach to engagement with his colleagues overseas, serve as an important reminder that there remain well-informed, respected voices of pragmatic moderation and strategic restraint in Chinese academia and its think-tank space.
Who is Wang Jisi?
Wang Jisi was born in Guangzhou in November 1948 – a little less than a year before the official establishment of the People’s Republic of China. He graduated in 1968 from the Affiliated High School of Peking University, a prominent public high school dubbed by many to be amongst the most prestigious in China. The school’s affiliation with Peking University served a critical role in shaping the demographics and values espoused by its teaching faculty, many whom were more liberal, open-minded, and amenable to ideals of mass participation and democracy (albeit most certainly under a Party-endorsed framework) than their counterparts elsewhere. Despite being born in Southern China, Wang grew up and spent a vast majority of his life in Beijing, China’s political capital, which shaped his identity as an internationalist Beijinger.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Wang was sent to the countryside in 1968 to serve as a ‘sent-down youth worker’ (知識青年) in Inner Mongolia. There, he spent seven years toiling away in the East Ujimqin Banner, a district with harsh weather in the northeast of the Northern Chinese province. He was subsequently reassigned to Henan in 1975, where the culmination of the decade of turmoil saw him recruited as a laborer in a hydropower plant in the Sanmenxia Dam. Like many peers from his generation, he spent nearly a decade away from formal, academic education. Yet, the experience most certainly influenced him, and perhaps indirectly influenced his later research as he came to reflect upon the contemporaneous “radical foreign policy” that “impeded China’s foreign trade” in China during the 1960s and first half of the 1970s.
Two years after the Cultural Revolution, Wang was admitted into the International Politics program at Peking University in 1978, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees (Unlike most of his foreign peers of similar academic stature, Wang does not possess a PhD as they were rarely conferred during the time of Wang’s education). In 1983, at the age of 35, he embarked upon his teaching career as a lecturer, Associate Professor, and Associate Head of the Department of International Politics at Peking University. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Wang also served as a Visiting Fellow to St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University (1982 – 1983), University of California, Berkeley (1984 – 1985), and University of Michigan (1990 – 1991). His expansive international networks, extensive and cosmopolitan teaching experience, and rigorous academic quality rendered him a natural candidate for the post of Associate Director (1991) and later Director (1993) of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The Institute of American Studies possesses a pivotal function – not only is it the premier organ of instruction and accreditation over American Studies in the country, it is also the de facto consultative organ and chief think-tank that advises the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other departments within the State Council, on American politics and foreign policy. As someone whose academic career spanned Europe, the United States, and China, Wang brought with him a distinctive flair and judgment combining cross-cultural communication and empathy, and a pragmatic perspective on how to juggle the competing and convergent interests of great and regional powers. Wang spearheaded the institute from 1992 to 2005, overseeing a series of reforms and expansions to its research and teaching faculty, as well as a significant amplification of its outreach and engagement efforts abroad, such as by liaising with partner organizations and think-tanks.
Through a decade of incisive academic research, publications, and academic administration, Wang came to earn the trust and ears of a range of senior Chinese political leaders and diplomats. He was invited to oversee the Institute of International Strategic Studies of the Central Party School between 2001 and 2009, and served as a member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2008 to 2016. His fifteen-year tenure in these various semi-official, consultative positions straddled three generations of leaders helming China: Jiang, Hu, and Xi.
Yet, it is perhaps his role as the Dean, then President, of the School of International Studies at Peking University for which Wang is best known. Serving for over 8 years as the academic overseer (though not the Party administrator) of the cradle of future diplomats, politicians, civil servants, and academics at arguably the most symbolically prominent university in China, Wang played a steering role in representing and presiding over critical decisions concerning the future generations of political leaders in the country.
Since stepping down from his deanship in 2014, Wang has turned towards delivering a greater volume of public-facing commentary, lectures, and speaking engagements – proffering a voice of relative moderation and empathetic nuance that straddles national and political divides. Wang has served, and still sits, on the advisory bodies of international organizations including the Asia Society, the Pacific Council on International Policy, the International Crisis Group, and the Harvard University Asia Center.
The Chinese foreign policy academic space is vibrant, dynamic, and multi-faceted – yet is often portrayed as inaccessible sheerly on grounds of linguistic constraints on the part of those who seek to interact with it. What is perhaps most lamentable here is the lack of multilingual scholars from outside China who can authentically and robustly come to engage with the deep and diverse field of thinking within the country. Wang plays a crucial bridging role, with his English articles found on prominent publications ranging from Foreign Affairs to China-US Focus, spanning topics ranging from China’s concerns over America’s structural antagonism and attempts at containment in relation to the country, the paucity of mutual intelligibility and empathy between America and China (where he also pays a touching tribute to the late Ezra Vogel), and the role played by China in the Asia-Pacific.
What does Wang Jisi advocate?
Intellectually, Wang Jisi cannot be easily pigeonholed. He is no typical International Relations liberal, as he is astutely aware of the constraints of multilateral institutions and economic interconnectivity in mediating between powers, especially between great powers whose foreign policy is indelibly undergirded by nationalism, institutional norms, and deeply rooted mistrust. At the same time, Wang is also a prudent optimist concerning prospects for the dissemination of ideas and sharing of cultural mores to cushion confrontations and gradually transform great power politics. To understand Wang’s international relations outlook and theory, we must do away with two presumptions – first, that Wang’s canon can be easily typified, one way or another and, second, that Wang’s works do not change throughout time.
Wang’s Views on America
In stark contrast to many of his peers, Wang is neither naïve nor cynical about the prospects of American decline and its possible rejuvenation. In a speech in 2021, he warned that “Our American studies are too weak” – and far too tainted by ideological hubris.
Wang began his career as someone who was both impressed and alarmed by the endurance and potency of American hard power. In China-Japan-U.S.: Managing the Trilateral Relationship (1998) co-authored with Morton Abramowitz and Funabashi Yoichi, Wang noted that “the [U.S.] superpower is more super, and the many great powers are less great” (p. 22). The US had come leaps and bounds over the latter half of the 20th century in consolidating its relative and absolute power – the former against the Soviet Union, which it triumphed over with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain; the latter across both economic and political spheres. While the US’ share of the global economy had declined from 40% to 30% of the global GDP between 1960 and 2000, Wang recognizes that the US has maintained a critical role in the global order, first as one amongst two poles (with the U.S. as a more tenacious and dynamic great power than the Soviet Union), and then subsequently as the unipole in the world from 1990 onwards.
Much like the tendency among some in the United States to view Chinese politics and governance through lenses framed in Washington’s terms, a similar problem plagues their Chinese counterparts – whose understanding of America remains perhaps excessively intertwined with the Cold War lens through which China came to understand both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Wang has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid this perspective. As a prerequisite to intellectually rigorous American studies, he places the American experience, with its unique cultural legacy, history, and sociolinguistic constructs, at the forefront of his analytical framework and did so without treading into reductionist essentialisms. His analytical framework has done so through two mechanisms.
The first was to situate American policymaking – both domestic and foreign – through the lenses of its politicians and practitioners. The second was to expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of American governance through the hypothetical lenses of the ordinary, average American citizen – compare this to, say, the works of Ezra Vogel and Yan Yunxiong in tracking the transformations of lives of everyday citizens in China during the reform and opening-up.
In his 1999 collection of essays on America’s post-Cold War foreign policy ‘Cold in the Heights: Post-Cold War U.S. Global Strategy and World Position’《高处不胜寒：冷战后美国的全球战略和世界地位》, Wang offered a balanced and detailed assessment of America’s strengths and weaknesses as a global power. Externally, he critiqued America’s fixation on an excessively Manichean worldview (“两极对立、非黑即白式的思维模式进行更深入的反思”), yet praised it for its ability to effectively control and shape global order through tactful manipulation of multilateral institutions and treaties across the domains of intellectual property, nuclear non-proliferation, and free trade (“一贯重视在国际上制订有形或无形的法规、行为规范和制度安排,力图操纵现存的国际组织,按照美国意愿和利益建立新的国际机构。”)
In relation to domestic politics, he anticipated that American politicians’ and intellectuals’ rigid faith in ‘democratic institutions’ and near-zealous devotion to Francis Fukyama’s narrative about the ‘End of History’ would result in the fragmentation and disintegration of social order. Nonetheless, Wang’s views did mellow (or narrow) somewhat over the years – he came to recognise America’s relatively resilient institutions and persistent innovation in fields of science, technology, and the military. In an interview with the Asia-Pacific Journal in 2008, he chided theorists whom he termed “leftists”, such as Immanuel Wallerstein, whose “forever trumpeting [of] the decline of the United States” is anchored upon a skewed selection of comparative metrics – in hard power, at least, America remained strong. Yet, Wang’s concerns remained, warning that with the increasing heterogeneity of social and ethnic groups, the laissez-faire nature of financial regulations, and the amorphously named “conservative forces” in the country, a “political imbalance” could well result. Wang opined that pre-existing socioeconomic malaise, coincident with the self-deceptive prowess of American exceptionalism, would only pave the way for unrest and inequality. Many have been rewarded more for less accurate predictions.
So where does Wang Jisi stand on America’s relative position in 2022? In a recent interview titled “The Recent Shifts in America’s Domestic and Foreign policies – An Interview with Wang Jisi”, Wang argued that while America’s international standing had indeed experienced a relative decline between 1995 and 2011, America’s share of global GDP once again rose in the decade after 2011. To conclude that America’s economy is in irreversible decline, Wang suggests, is a judgment that lacks robust substantiation (我就对“美国经济衰落”这一论断存在怀疑). When it comes to soft power, there remains much catching-up to be done on the part of China – he views America’s natural wherewithal, demographic patterns, and geographical situation as inherent strengths that render it comparatively resilient when juxtaposed against other ‘declining hegemons’ (衰落的霸权国家) of the past.
Wang’s Views on China
Amongst the many virtues of his theorisation is the fact that Wang does not appraise international geopolitical dynamics through merely the reductionist lenses of “Rise” and “Fall” (e.g. the East Rises/Falls, the West Falls/Rises). Nor does Wang – for vast swathes of his career, till perhaps recently – vocally espouse the view that China’s rise is inevitable: In a 2021 China Daily article, Wang did state that “Momentum is with China”, noting China’s rapid GDP growth and competent handling of COVID-19. Yet, even then, he tactfully framed the subject of his analysis in terms of American reactions – “neuralgia and anxiety” – as opposed to objective truth.
Wang’s realism cuts both ways. In his recent discussion at CSIS, he openly acknowledged the fact that China’s economic growth had slowed down, with rising prices being a significant concern. In his earlier writings on China’s grand strategy, he called upon China to “March Westward” into Central and Western Asia, for China was unlikely to succeed against the United States were it to be locked into the “zero-sum game-plan” (零和格局) America had designed for China elswhere. His vision for the Westward Expansion was arguably his most comprehensive forecast, and his vision for the Belt and Road Initiative was swiftly adopted by President Xi Jinping as amongst his flagship projects in his first term.
One could, of course, make the criticism that Wang could afford to be more vocal about the domestic woes of Chinese governance. Yet to his defense, his preoccupation remains primarily with China’s grand strategy and what Beijing, as a whole, ought to aspire towards in its regional and international positioning. Perhaps what is amiss in his substantive world-building theorisation was a modicum of pragmaticism and attention to policy details as to how his vision could be accomplished – yet this limitation to his work is largely offset by Wang’s unrivaled to combine Chinese leaders’ personal ambitions, what he takes to be the Chinese people’s interests, and how China – as an entity and collective – must carefully maneuver between its neighbors, partners, and rivals. Indeed, in his 2011 Foreign Affairs article, ‘China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Great Power Finds Its Way’, Wang called for “a more sophisticated grand strategy” than simplistic acquiescence or aggression, in order for China’s foreign policy to “serve […its] domestic priorities”, through a “comprehensive understanding of security, which incorporates economic and nontraditional concerns with traditional military and political interests”, and its shift towards “multilateral and issue-oriented diplomacy”.
More recently, amidst the wide-ranging disputes between America and China over trade, technology, and education, Wang took to warning both Washington and Beijing of the perils of a tech decoupling – a 7,600-word report was published with Wang at the helm (and later pulled), noting that both sides to the decoupling would suffer, but that China had more to lose than the US across fields of IT, aerospace technology, and artificial intelligence were it to ‘decouple’ from America.
Wang’s Views on Sino-American Relations
Wang devoted a significant portion of his career to carving out a tenable, productive modus operandi between Beijing and Washington. The evolution throughout time is palpable. In the immediate years following the Cold War, much of his writings had embraced the view that while America was an unstable unipole, countries such as China and Russia were far from viable threats to its global hegemony.
Towards the end of the 1990s and during much of the 2000s, Wang shifted towards arguing that China’s economic ascent – propelled by its entry to the World Trade Organization – and immense financial growth would not pose a fundamental threat towards the traditionally West-led global order. He preemptively addressed the question of why American politicians should not be excessively alarmed by China’s rise: with China’s “redefinition [of] the purpose of China’s foreign policy” in 2009, to reorient itself around “interests of sovereignty, security, and development” (2021 Foreign Affairs article), the Communist Party of China, as Wang argues, remains predominantly focused on delivering proximate and concrete economic outcomes for its domestic population. Per Wang’s outlook in the early 2010s, the ruling party’s focus upon domestic governance rendered foreign policy as a means to an end: China was likely to count on foreign powers’ support in order to tackle functional socioeconomic issues internally, yet any further transgressive act (unless provoked by external forces) beyond that point was not, as far as he was concerned or aware, a natural option for the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, he also does not hold back in his prescriptions for China’s leaders: so long as its territorial baselines were not perceived to be fundamentally violated by foreign powers, it would be both improbable and imprudent of Beijing to “identify any one country as a major threat and invoke the need to keep it at bay”.
Cynics here may object as such: surely, the events unfolding in the second half of the 2010s, with Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and precipitous military incursions into the South China Sea, would offer a potent, unflinching repudiation of Wang’s hypothesis above? Yet such criticisms ignore two possible pushbacks from those sympathetic to Wang: that the hardening of America’s China policy in the second half of Barack Obama’s presidency had left many in Beijing feeling that “the United States […] truly did regard China as its main adversary” (his 2011 Foreign Affairs article); and that, as Wang and Kenneth Lieberthal noted in a Brookings Institution report published in 2012, Beijing and Washington alike were plagued by the specter of “strategic distrust” – i.e., an absence of transparent understanding over each other’s long-term intentions.
Donald J. Trump’s 2016 victory, his initiation of the US-China trade war, and the COVID-19 pandemic have left deep cuts in Sino-American relations. Wang is not at all naïve to think that dialogue and mediation alone could enable the kind of understanding that he and Lieberthal warned of dissipating between the two parties. In an op-ed published in January of this year, Wang invoked the concept of “Hot Peace” he coined two decades ago and noted that, unlike back in 2001, the hot peace “has now become much hotter in most dimensions” – manifesting itself through mutual accusations and clashes over issues of cybersecurity, military activities in the South China Seas, treatment of national minorities, and the origin of the pandemic. The saber-rattling from both sides is unlikely to cease, given domestic agendas, attitudes of allies, politicization/securitisation of economic issues, and soaring negative domestic perceptions.
Yet Wang remained prudently, pragmatically optimistic. He noted that “there are enough incentives on both sides to remain sober-minded and keep the relationship manageable” – whether it be the Chinese leadership’s desire for a smoothened political transition in relation to the 20th Party Congress, or Washington’s need for China to aid it in stabilizing domestic inflation and build infrastructure (though Wang might have overestimated the salience of these considerations to President Joe Biden in his policy agenda – unlike the China envisioned by late 2000s-early 2010s Wang, American politicians do not necessarily prize the domestic over the foreign in their priorities). He remains hopeful of the prospects of a more moderate, constructive, and quasi-stabilised Sino-American relationship.
Wang Jisi is an academic with many talents. He is a thinker, bilingual writer and interlocutor, public speaker, interpreter of official and unofficial doctrines and ideology, historian, and authority on the subject of Sino-American relations. His ideas have played a pivotal role in steering academic discourse in China – specifically over its relationship with the United States, but also when it comes to deepening the country’s understanding of America.
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