The Rise of Chinese Exceptionalism in International Relations

European Journal of International Relations

Author/s (editor/s):

Feng Zhang

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

Find this publication at:

Feng Zhang, ‘The Rise of Chinese Exceptionalism in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 19(2) 2013: 305-28.

Although exceptionalism is an important dimension of China’s foreign policy, it has not been a subject of serious scholarly research. This article attempts to identify manifestations of exceptionalism in China’s long history and explain why and how different types of exceptionalism have arisen in different historical periods. The analytical approach is both historical and theoretical. It explores how international structure has interacted with perceptions of history and culture to produce three distinctive yet related types of exceptionalism in imperial, Maoist, and contemporary China. While resting on an important factual basis, China’s exceptionalism is constructed by mixing facts with myths through selective use of the country’s vast historical and cultural experiences. The implications of contemporary China’s exceptionalism — as characterized by the claims of great power reformism, benevolent pacifism, and harmonious inclusions — are drawn out by a comparison with American exceptionalism. While American exceptionalism has both offensive and defensive faces, Chinese exceptionalism is in general more defensive and even vague. While not determinative, exceptionalism can suggest policy dispositions, and by being an essential part of China’s worldview, it can become an important source for policy ideas, offer the ingredients for the supposed construction of Chinese theories of international relations, and provide a lens through which to view emerging Chinese visions of international relations.

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