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Chinese Ambassadors. The Rise of Diplomatic Professionalism since 1949, Liu Xiaohong

Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2001, 259 p.
Tanguy Le Pesant
p. 140-143
Référence(s) :

Liu Xiaohong, Chinese Ambassadors. The Rise of Diplomatic Professionalism since 1949, Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2001, 259 p.

Texte intégral

1The study on the Chinese Ambassadors that Liu Xiaohong offers here is interesting on two counts: It is the result of an analysis carried out by an insider who, however, managed to remain at a necessary distance from the subject. After fourteen years (1977-1989) spent within the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Liu took a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies (1997) at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. The fact that these experiences enrich and complete each other is obvious throughout the book. The former gave her access to a very rich corpus of information (talks, works, records), while the latter allowed her to deflect “scientific shortsightedness,” and so to gain in objectivity, not a small feat considering the efficiency of the indoctrination system established by the Chinese Communist Party.

2The construction of the book, divided into two sets of four chapters each, covering the period 1949-1994, reflects a deliberate dialogue between an analysis informed by an International Relations point of view and the case studies used to provide each new step with live illustrations. Besides this alternation, however, the book’s organization puts forth four generations of ambassadors. If we consider Chinese Ambassadors from this angle, then it is divided into four pairs of chapters: Each pair, devoted to one generation, includes a first chapter describing the setting – the changes in the inside and outside political orders – in which the actors, the ambassadors, move and act; in a second chapter, the careers of some of these ambassadors are related. However, as indicated early in the introduction, the author deals with “experiential generations” rather than “biological generations,” in the sense that ambassadors’ careers were more often subject to the current political order than to the “age factor.”

3First and foremost, the ideas of profession-alization and institutionalization are used as a reference to identify the different generations of ambassadors and “evaluate” them. These ideas are clearly defined in the introduction, in relation to Max Weber’s theory included in On Charisma and Institution Building. Liu is therefore, throughout her study, showing how the evolution of the PRC and the institutionalization of the State – through the example of the MFA – confirm Weber’s theory, whereby the authority initially based on personal charisma inevitably evolves into “routinization” and, by doing so, turns into other types of authorities, either “traditional” or “legal-rational.” In the case of change into a “legal-rational” authority, as it happened in the PRC, this “routinization” develops into the premises of a bureaucracy, initially aimed in fact at continuing the authority and the legitimacy of the charismatic chief. An increasingly intense conflict then arises between the charismatic leader and the bureaucrats. In the case of Mao’s China, this is illustrated by the never-ending purges within the Party and the administration started during the 1950s.

4Carrying on along this line of this analysis, Liu interprets the Deng Xiaoping era and the opening of China as the completion of this routinization process of charismatic authority and legitimacy and as the victory of bureaucracy through the establishment of a legal-rational legitimacy. It is then the triumph of professionalism, defined (still referring to Weber) as originating from two principles: first, the principle of rationality and the existence of firm administrative rules and, second, the principle of the primacy of skills and technical qualification in the choice of civil servants. I will return later to some reservations about the author’s optimism, perhaps a little too strong, concerning this last question.

5At this point, I should return to the main characteristics defining each generation of ambassadors. The first feature, shared by all generations and proceeding from the previous discussion, is that each generation is deeply marked in all its components by the human factor, that is, a few actors, charismatic leaders, and historical and political figures of the PRC. For the first three generations, everything was done or undone mainly under Mao Zedong’s and Zhou Enlai’s impulsions, whereas the fourth was mainly influenced by Deng Xiaoping, initiator of the reforms and the “potential to evolve from a system of law to the rule of law.”

6The first generation of ambassadors (1949-1954) took up their duties in the historical background of the Cold War and the aftermath of the Communist Party’s taking control of China. The PRC then adopted a foreign policy of tabula rasa and began to bolster the establishment of a bipolar system by taking sides with the Soviet Union, a position summed up by the motto “lean to one side.” In this context, the few ambassadors recruited, as well as almost all the key elements of the MFA of the young PRC, were primarily hand-picked by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai from amongst officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They were chosen for their loyalty, their sense of duty and discipline and, of course, for their irreproachable ideological convictions. In addition, those militaries were personally acquainted with the Party’s leaders, allowing for a very efficient centralized control of the personnel abroad. The author thus stresses the limited room left to professionalism, totally erased by the ideological aims of the MFA formation. A diplomat is a “PLA in civilian clothes,” for whom diplomacy should be “just another war, but of words,” following Zhou Enlai’s words.

7The second generation of ambassadors (1954-1966) took up their duties in the context of the ending Korean War, the Geneva Conference, and the Bandung Conference, which offered to the PRC several opportunities to “reach out to the world.” As a consequence, the number of ambas-sadors in office increased strongly from 17 to 77. This generation showed some improvement in professionalism. Fewer ambassadors were chosen for their army background or personal links with party leaders. Moreover, their level of education was higher. However, “political loyalty took precedence over competence.” So a cruel inexperience in foreign affairs allied with a “rigid Sinocentric outlook” often placed these ambas-sadors in difficult situations, where their striking incompetence was revealed. For Liu Xiaohong, this generation was the weakest and least capable in their duties.

8The third generation of ambassadors (1966-1984) was, according to Liu, the result of the Cultural Revolution and its consequences. The beginnings of the Cultural Revolution generated a total destabilization of the MFA, which reached quasi-total destruction in August 1968. All Chinese ambassadors, except for the one posted in Egypt, were recalled to Beijing and the largest part of the diplomatic structure built until then was reduced to nothing. It was only in May 1969, that Zhou Enlai, who played a restraining part – capital at the MFA level – managed to convince Mao of the necessity to rebuild a diplomacy. The 1970s stood in contrast with these dark years, even though the Cultural Revolution was not to come to an end before 1976. Then, the PRC established or developed official relations with most of the world’s states (130 in 1984) at the expense of the Republic of China in Taiwan. This expansion implied recruiting new diplomats (179 for the whole period) to make up the third generation, which, for Liu, formed the transition from the very politicized first two generations to the following one. Almost every diplomat was recruited from inside the MFA. These men – and, for the first time, women – had not, however, received the basic training needed for a Foreign Affairs career. They were mainly older party leaders of provincial origins, or fairly low-level army officers. Liu here points out the origin of the accelerated professionalization that took place at the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping era: the demilitarization of the diplomatic corps and the MFA.

9The fourth and last generation studied (1984-1994) was borne out of the reforms initiated in the MFA in 1984-85, which led to the retirement of large numbers of the oldest ambassadors and to the advent of the first true “professionals,” well-trained diplomats exclusively originating from the MFA, where they had performed the whole of their careers. Their level of professionalism, although somewhat inhibited by a kind of “shyness” and wariness of politics – both inherited from their personal experience of Maoism – can be measured by their achievements in a difficult international context due to the Tiananmen events and, later, to the profound changes generated by the fall of the Soviet bloc. One of their successes is the “reintegration of the world system” by China during and after the Gulf War.

10After this brief review of four generations of ambassadors, we now return to a more critical analysis of the book. While we must admire the wealth of the sources used, which allow for great accuracy in Liu’s descriptions of the MFA and the diplomatic corps, a few remarks appear necessary. First, from a methodological point of view, Liu could be faulted for providing too many details, to the extent that their abundance obscures theoretical points. She would gain in not solely relying on Weber’s writings. In the same line, one can only regret that Chinese Ambassadors is lacking in comparative analysis: A parallel description of the organization of diplomacy by the Kuomintang in the Republic of China in Taiwan and its development in the chain of political transformations internal to the island, for instance, would have been very interesting – but this could be the subject of another book. Finally, in the book’s concluding section, one would have liked to find some insights into the rich recent evolutions in Chinese diplomacy, rather than just a summary in the Anglo-Saxon academic style.

11To conclude this review, I wish to express some doubt concerning Liu’s view of the fourth-generation ambassadors’ relatively achieved professionalism and her optimism about a Chinese diplomacy that would have changed from a “tedious political propaganda” to the respect of international law, making the PRC “a cooperating member of international society.” We may ask whether this professionalism, here clearly meant to most efficiently serve Chinese national interests, does indeed exist. Aren’t these diplomats actually serving the interests of a party, and more precisely an oligarchy trying to maintain itself in power at any price, rather than Chinese national interests? And aren’t these national interests and, as a consequence, the diplomats who fight for them kept hostage, even now, by a handful of autocrats?

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Tanguy Le Pesant, « Chinese Ambassadors. The Rise of Diplomatic Professionalism since 1949, Liu Xiaohong »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 140-143.

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Tanguy Le Pesant, « Chinese Ambassadors. The Rise of Diplomatic Professionalism since 1949, Liu Xiaohong »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2017, consulté le 27 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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