2020: Zhang Baijia: Reflections on China’s Research on Frontiers and Relations with Neighboring States

Professor Zhang Baijia 章百家 spoke at the first session and gave opening remarks of the academic workshop on “China’s Frontier and Asian Studies” hosted by the Department of History of Tsinghua University on October 11, 2020. Zhang Baijia is the former Deputy Director of the Party History Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, Professor of the Department of History of Peking University, Professor of the Department of Party History of Renmin University, and member of the Academic Committee of the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Professor Zhang’s talk is on Youtube. My close notes on his half hour-long talk I have copied below.

Always interesting are the questions what scholars know compared and can say compared with what officials know and can say. Shen Zhihua in his talk at the same conference mentioned that he founded a classified journal ““China Border Areas and Neighboring Countries” on diplomatic history so that young scholars can publish their research internally on topics that are too sensitive for the general public to read. Shen also said “When our diplomats speak untruths, they should be at least aware that they are speaking untruths.” There is a parallel in the distinction between the public media control system which has the vocation, according to Communist Party policy of “guiding public opinion” and the parallel internal distribution only neibu media of varying levels of confidentiality that aims to give China’s higher ranking Party members and bureaucrats domestic and foreign news that is politically inconvenient. See my notes on Shen Zhihua’s talk at Shen Zhihua on State of Chinese Research on Relations with Neighboring Asian Countries.

From Shen’s and Zhang’s talks I got impressions of the inertia of history and politics. Changing course is not easy and it does not seem that China’s leaders, at least openly, want to change course. Historians who offer views that differ from Party orthodoxy suffer or are called “historical nihilists“. Diplomatic historian Shen Zhihua has been called an historical nihilist but he was also invited by the Party Central Military Commission to do research on the DPRK and gets significant (10 – 20%) support from the PRC government for the big archival research and publishing that Shen and his students do in the archives of China, of neighboring countries and of the Colonial Office in the United Kingdom for materials on former UK colonies.

What scholars say and even Central Party School professors say in private can be very different from the Make China Great Again policies General Secretary Xi Jinping — the man whose published speeches are now Chinese Communist Party scriptures — can be very different from the Party canon. How much this matters now and over time we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile Chinese scholarly perspectives on Chinese history are very instructive, both for their factual and analytical value, but also for the range of opinions that can be expressed by scholars. In my work in China, I often found views and facts buried deep in thick books or in obscure articles helpful apparently because there is more freedom of expression where the censors did not care to go or are too lazy to go. A Tsinghua University workshop on diplomatic history is not obscure though it would be interesting to know how far these talks circulate within China itself.

Two comments on the YouTube video give some idea of the reception Professor Zhang Baijia’s views might receive. Some sympathetic, others from people with their blow torches turned up high:

The view of just one scholar. History shows that tough people rule the land! The main problem with scholars is that they are bookish. Many of these kinds of people haven’t been in a fight since they were kids so of course they are afraid to fight. The leaders who founded the PRC achieved what they did by climbing over piles and piles of dead bodies. They understood very well that the Truth of Survival emerges from gun barrels and depends on tactical brilliance on the battlefield!
Political leaders always strive to maximize the interests of their own country and to create optimal conditions for national development!

Reply: Will you fight hard to add a square millimeter to Chinese territory? Why are you making a fool of yourself?

Reply: Yes, it is not as if you or you family are going to die in a war, so why not?

YouTube presentation by Professor Zhang Baijia at October 2020 Workshop on “China’s Frontiers and Asia”

Zhang began by quoting a Remin University professor “Even though an official does not do their own research, they do well to be open to being influenced by the research that academics do.”

Zhang said that studying China’s frontiers and relations with neighboring states is an urgent matter in view of the PRC’s difficult international environment. Handling well China’s relations with neighboring countries is the most important task of its diplomats.

China as a newly rising power is poorly prepared for this task both because of shortcomings in its institutions and in a shortage of human talent. Chinese research on foreign relations has focused on big countries while neglecting for the most part its neighbors. While research on big countries is important, it now occupies too large a part in China’s research effort.

For example, research on India, a big country on China’s border has been seriously neglected. Very few Chinese scholars have done work on India and even those that have are people with many years of personal experience with India and not people who started out as scholars and have done archival research.

Why is China’s research about its neighbors so weak?

First of all, deep in our bones we are very sinocentric. We think of our neighbors as belonging to the Chinese cultural sphere. Such a simple view is wrong. The history of China’s neighbors is very different from China’s. This is especially true for those of our neighbors which have been colonies of European powers.

If we compare Asian and European culture, Asian culture is much more complex that European culture.

Chinese studies on foreign relations suffer from

– Overemphasis on big countries.

– The USA is not China’s neighbor yet the USA is highly involved in China’s relations with its neighboring states.

— Much of China’s relations with the USA have to do with a shared international agenda. China’s concerns about the USA are related to US involvement in China’s periphery.

– PRC research on neighboring countries is weak. During the 19th century, many of the countries on China’s periphery did not have institutions of their own. In many cases these countries still have strong ties to the former colonial power and limited ties with China.

– An example of China misunderstanding its neighbors: when the Chinese delegation went to the Geneva Talks of 1954, they learned that Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had become independent countries. China had to immediately make adjustments to its foreign policy.

– Difference in language and culture as a barrier to understanding. China has invested little in people and research to overcome its ignorance of its neighbors, except in some limited areas where it has been able to learn from research done by western scholars. Solving this problem will take time.

– Chinese scholars have done little research on how multilateral relations and bilateral relations affect each other. How are China’s relations with its neighbors affected by their relations with one another? Examples:

  • China – India and China – Pakistan relations are strongly affected by the current state of relations between India and Pakistan.
  • China – Cambodia and China – Laos relations are also affected by the relations of those two countries with Vietnam.

China needs to fund more research and train up scholars to work on studies of its neighbors. What is needed is not so much research on foreign relations as more ‘basic research’ on understanding China’s neighbors rather than foreign policy research on how China might respond to a particular issue in foreign relations. Research done at Chinese universities and think tanks and especially in the history departments of Chinese universities will be essential.

Scholar-diplomat Allen S. Whiting (1926 – 2018)

Zhang Baijia quoted the US political scientist and former head of the Far Eastern Division of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research Allen S.Whiting on the distinction between hard and soft intelligence.

Hard intelligence is specific information; soft intelligence is the understanding that makes possible the interpretation of hard intelligence. Zhang said that Whiting was most proud of this example:

After India’s defeat in the 1962 war, India was worried that China would attack New Delhi. India asked the US for advice. Whiting responded that China predicted that China would not attack New Delhi based on his understanding of Chinese decision-making process that he had acquired over years of research on China. Whiting was completely correct in this judgment.

[Note See Allen S. Whiting’s article “Reflections on ‘Misunderstanding’ China”. ]

China’s frontiers and borders. We Chinese like to say “ever since ancient times” Yǒushǐ yǐlái 有史以来. That is a very unscientific thing to say. It reflects a nationalistic and greedy point of view.

China has had a unique geographic situation as an agricultural state with herder states on its periphery. The capacity of an agricultural state to expand is limited: China hard to reach into or control Vietnam, south into India or the Korean peninsula. China’s central empire was not able to control the border areas but sometimes the herder states on its periphery took over China’s central empire and brought those peripheral areas into a closer relation with the China. We need to better understand China’s historic relationship with the herder people on its periphery. China’s conflicts with those people generally occurred in the areas between them that were semi-agricultural/semi-pastoral areas.

China’s imperial state had a tribute system. Tributary states had a relationship, but not an exclusive relationship, with China. Unlike a colony, a tributary state could have multiple relationships just as a person might have multiple sets of adopted parents. This is different from a colonial system.

The Confucian attitude focusing on self-cultivation zishenzhili 自身治理 as the path of leadership neisheng waiwang 内圣外王

China in its relations with its tributary states did not have clearly defined borders. This is different from the current system of clearly defined borders.

China’s tributary states became colonies of the European powers and Japan.

In the case of a tributary state, the relationship is vague and personal. Multiple personal relationships with other rulers are possible.

In the case of a colony, the relationship between the colonizer state and the colony is well-defined and exclusive.

The statement in the party charter of the Tongmenghui 同盟会 (founded by Sun Yat-sen) of 1905 which included the call to “expel the Tartars [abusive term for Manchus], restore China and create a government of the people” Qūchú dá lǔ, huīfù zhōnghuá, chuànglì hé zhòng zhèngfǔ 驱除鞑虏,恢复中华,创立合众政府 is a key document on the legitimization of China’s borders.

1) The Republic of China government worked to restore the Qing Dynasty borders despite practical difficulties. China did not break up at the time due to the limits of European powers and their counterbalancing one another.

2) Chinese have gotten their territorial view of China from the “Historical Atlas of China” Zhōngguó lìshǐ dìtú jí 中国历史地图集 edited by Tan Qixiang. [Note: some of these maps from this eight-volume work are available online.]

This collection of historical maps, which incorporates the entire geographic extent of historical kingdoms of minority people then in land controlled by the Republic of China into the map of China, has been very influential. This way of drawing maps made for a large expansion of China’s borders. Just what was Chinese territory is an idea that changed constantly throughout Chinese history, and one different from the modern view. The concept today of what China’s borders were is much larger than what people at the time thought they were. This has led to many problems.

Map of the Da Qing 大清 a predecessor state to the ROC and PRC from “The Historical Atlas of China” Note that the dashed-line in the South China Sea, first published in 1947 by the ROC government, is projected back in time to the pre-1911 Qing map.

3) Tubo 吐蕃 [ancient Tibet kingdom 629 – 840] was a big country but not part of the Chinese central empire. With the incorporation of Tubo territory, China became much larger. Tubo had a special situation. It had voluntary exchanges with China; it was not governed by China. Therefore more scholarly work is needed on China’s relations with Tubo. [Note: Tan in his talk referred to Tibet by the traditional name Tubo rather than by its Chinese name Xizang 西藏. Perhaps he only meant to refer to the ancient Tibetan kingdom or perhaps he was speaking with plausible deniability on a sensitive topic. ]

Settling China’s border issues has been very complex. The PRC had twelve neighbors on its land borders; this later increased to fourteen. Border issues are security and strategic issues. As a new country in 1949, the PRC needed to define its borders. In 1949 the PRC did not have surveyed borders. There had earlier been treaties about China’s borders but the borders had not been surveyed. China had put up some markers, but a unilateral border definition is not valid. In discussions with the USSR, the Soviet side suggested border adjustments in Heilongjiang. Mao said the suggestion was acceptable for the time being and that bilateral discussions would resolve the issue at a later date.

Settling the borders of the PRC was important for China’s relations with neighboring states. As a big country, the lack of defined borders could make smaller states on its periphery feel anxious about their own security.

Setting the borders of the PRC was a long, difficult process. China lacked expert personnel and archives on border issues. Archives relating to China’s borders were for the most part taken by the Nationalist government when it retreated to Taiwan. Very little remained on the China Mainland; some fragmentary archives abandoned by the KMT during its retreat were recuperated by the PLA and given to the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In mid 1950, negotiations with Burma [Myanmar] on the Burma – PRC border began. The PRC Foreign Ministry asked PRC embassies to collect information on China’s borders. Very little was collected. Some maps, some notes in Russian. The situation improved after 1950 after the establishment of the PRC office in the United Kingdom.

PRC border issues were settled by treaty based on the status quo.

Today we know far less than did people who participated in border negotiations. We have lost many details. We haven’t done as much work on these issues as people back in the day did. We have some military maps that were marked up in Premier Zhou Enlai’s home.

The difficult international environment made negotiations on China’s borders more difficult. Early on, the “China threat” theory became well established from the very founding of the PRC. Even when the PRC made concessions, people would still find ways to say bad things about China.

There were many newly independent countries on China’s borders. Negotiations with colonial power were different from negotiations with an independent country. When pre-1949 Chinese negotiators discussed the China – India border with the UK, foremost for the UK was what borders would best support its control of India and curb the northward expansion of the princely states tubang 土邦.

After India became independent, borders became tied to nationalism and so negotiations became much more difficult.

In border negotiations with Burma and India, the Burmese and the Indian had much better archives than did the PRC. Public opinion, both foreign and domestic, complicated the negotiations. Negotiators had to take care not to make their positions too explicit, especially in public, in order to leave room for compromise. Unilateral claims were useless, there needed to be an agreement and a treaty. In the end this came down to decisions at the political level to clarify issues leftover from history that could complicate bilateral relations.

The success of a border negotiation wasn’t so much about territory lost or gained but how the resolution of the border issue contributed to the security and development possibilities of the parties as well as their bilateral relations.

Settlement of border issues comes at a cost to both sides as border change from vague to explicit. The PRC – Burma border issue has been especially complex. I hope my friend Shen Zhihua [ Lǎo shén] and his group will have comments about this. During the PRC – Burma negotiations, some members of the Chinese democratic parties wrote about the issue. Premier Zhou Enlai went to the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress with maps to discuss the issues with them. This border issue was especially complicated because of the border that the KMT/Republic of China government had agreed to in the 1920s even though these borders included territory that had never been under ROC/Chinese control.

One characteristic habit of KMT border negotiators was to move territory never under the control of China and areas that China could not control into the map of China. That is the case of those lines drawn in the South China Sea. The Chinese Communist Party has never referred to the KMT as our ‘honored ancestors’ Lǎo zōngzǔ 老祖宗 yet one should never underestimate the big historical problems we have inherited from them.

3) The China-India problem. At the time of the 1962 China-India War, the PRC seriously overestimated India’s military strength. The result of the war was a deep resentment on the Indian side that made border issues even harder to resolve. Another problem is that China does not understand India.

Border issues require long-term engagement on the issues. Opportunities to resolve border issues are fleeting. If one waits for a better opportunity to resolve them, some even may occur such as a change of government and the disappearance of a leader who wanted to make a contribution to history by resolving the issue. That will make that opportunity for a solution vanish.

Long negotiations with the Soviet Union produced very little change compared to the positions of the two countries at the outset of the negotiations. The border negotiations affected bilateral relations and negotiations are difficult when bilateral relations are tense.

There are just my own views. I haven’t done any research on many of these issues. I hope that we can have a good discussion.

Conference Schedule


China Borderlands and Asian Studies” Workshop

The day before the cloud lecture


Since the “One Belt, One Road” initiative was proposed, Chinese academics have invested a lot of resources to investigate and study the history, culture, politics, economy and society of Asian countries in all aspects. However, Asian studies (especially Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, etc.) still have a long way to go in China due to various reasons such as weak academic accumulation for a long time, distinct disciplinary barriers, and insufficient talent reserves. On the other hand, the study of China’s frontier history, including the study of northeast, northwest, and southwest frontiers, has a long tradition and good academic heritage in the discipline of Chinese history, and there are many achievements and experiences that can be inherited and carried forward in the perspective of global history.

Tsinghua University intends to hold an academic workshop on “Chinese Borderlands and Asian Studies” on October 11, 2020 (Phase I). The workshop will take the Chinese frontier as the starting point and extend outward to the neighboring countries of Asia for in-depth investigation, to make use of the existing advantages and foundation of Chinese frontier historical research, to bridge the disciplinary divide between Chinese history and world history, to improve the overall quality of Asian studies in China, and to create a paradigm of Asian studies with Chinese characteristics.

The workshop is co-sponsored by the Department of History of Tsinghua University and the Rising Sun Institute.

Venue: Room 440, Meng Minwei Humanities Building, Tsinghua University

Tencent Conference: ID 656 724 015 Password: 987 654

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

[Keynote Speech] (Host: Ni Yuping) 8:45

Zhang Baijia (Central Party History Research Office) Some Reflections on the Study of the History of China’s Frontiers, Borders and Peripheral Relations

Shen Zhihua (East China Normal University)Strengthening Historical Research on China’s Relations with Neighboring Countries: What We Have Done and What We Will Do

Wang Yikang (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

From Dao to Lying-Up States–The Evolution of Administrative Divisions of Han and Tang Dynasties in the Four-Yi Regions and Its Implications

【First presentation】(Moderator: Chen Zhirui)10:40

Yuan Jian (Central University for Nationalities)

Regional Knowledge in the History of Frontier Thought: Frontier, Central Asia and 20th Century Geopolitics under the Interweaving of the Concept of “Cross-border Peoples

Chen Kangling (Fudan University)

An Experiment on the Geopolitical Ties of Ancient China’s Foreign Relations: The Great Wall, the Silk Road, and Ritual and Music as Examples

Cai Weijie (Shenzhen University)

A Comparative Study on the Indigenization of Han Chinese Migrants in Inner Asia and the Maritime Frontier in the Qing Dynasty

Cao Yin (Tsinghua University)

Chinese Frontiers, Asian Studies and the Construction of Global History with Chinese Characteristics

【Second Presentation】 (Host: Zhong Weimin) 14:00

Wei Ling (School of Foreign Affairs)

Understanding Southeast Asia: From the Cold War Frontier to the ASEAN Community

Chen Boyi (Xiamen University)

A Continual Odyssey of the Hokkien: Economic Interdependence and the Continual Regenerated Enclave, 1550-1850

Zhang Jie (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

A Comparative Study of the Differences in Perceptions of Related Countries on the Historical Issues in the South China Sea

Xie Kan Kan (Peking University)

The Battle of Renationalism: A Re-examination of Chinese Education in the Dutch East Indies (1900-1942)

[Third Presentation] (Host: Wang Zhongzhen) 16:00

Jin Ying (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

Epidemic and Civilization: An Experiment on the Transformation of the Way of Communication between China and the World in the Era of New Globalization

Bi Yana (Party History Research Office of Guangdong Provincial Committee)

The Creation History of China-Japan Economic Knowledge Exchange Society and Its Impact (1981-1989)

Gu Tao (Tsinghua University)

Ritual Governance in East Asia after Breaking Free from “Fu Weng

Closing Ceremony] 17:20


重点讲座 | “中国边疆与亚洲研究”学术工作坊



自 “一带一路” 倡议提出以来,中国学术界投入了大量资源对亚洲各国的历史、文化、政治、经济、社会等领域进行全方位的考察和研究。但由于长期以来学术积累薄弱、学科壁垒分明、人才储备不足等多方面的原因,亚洲研究(尤其是东南亚,南亚,中亚等)在我国仍然有长足发展的空间。另一方面,我国的边疆史地研究,包括对于东北,西北,西南边疆的研究,在中国史学科中有着悠久的传统和良好的学术传承,有不少成果和经验可以在全球史的视野中得以继承和弘扬。

清华大学拟于2020年10月11日举办 “中国边疆与亚洲研究” 学术工作坊(第一期)。工作坊将以中国边疆作为出发点,向外扩伸至亚洲周边各国的深入探究,发挥中国边疆史地研究的既有优势和基础,打通中国史与世界史的学科分界,提升我国亚洲研究的总体质量,打造具有中国特色的亚洲研究范式。



腾讯会议:ID 656 724 015 密码:987 654





















A Continual Odyssey of the Hokkien:Economic Interdependence and the Continual Regenerated Enclave, 1550-1850














About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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