A Conversation with Baizhi Liao: IDN's Visiting Scholar

Baizhi Liao

In the US, China’s growing role in Africa is the subject of increased international attention and in some cases, concern. IDN is a collaborating partner withThe Carter Center’s China-Africa Initiative. 

Launched in 2011, the initiative convenes a multi-regional policy advisory group that builds trust and understanding between China and Africa and explores potential pilot projects featuring community-level collaboration between Chinese stakeholders and African civil society groups. After attending the initiative’s inaugural roundtable discussion in Beijing last December, IDN director Sita Ranchod-Nilsson visited China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) to explore areas of mutual interest and opportunities for collaboration. Ten months later, CICIR sent Baizhi Liao, assistant director of the Institute for West Asian and African Studies, to Emory to be a visiting scholar with IDN. Stephanie Stawicki, IDN’s program coordinator, recently sat down with Liao to find out more about CICIR and his own research interests. 

Can you tell us about CICIR and the Institute of West Asian and African Studies? How big is the institute and what are its research priorities? Is CICIR associated with any specific universities?

CICIR is one of the most important think tanks to the Chinese government. Its research work includes global strategic, political, economic and security studies; country and regional studies; and China’s foreign relations. Today, CICIR consists of 11 institutes, two research divisions under direct supervision of CICIR leaders, eight research centers and several administrative departments—e.g., the President’s Office. CICIR now has a staff of 380, including researchers, administrative, and logistic personnel, among whom 150 are research professors or associate research professors. 

Research findings are either submitted to relevant government departments as reports or published in academic journals. Additionally, CICIR also undertakes specially commissioned research projects and cooperates with its counterparts at home and abroad on issues of common concern. The specific institute where I work, the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, is divided into two departments; one focuses on the Middle East and North Africa, and the other focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. CICIR sometimes collaborates with universities, but does not have a permanent relationship with any specific university. For example, we cooperate with Tsinghua University and the University of International Relations on CICIR’s Doctoral Program. 

Each year CICIR recruits 20 PhD students from different fields such as Middle East studies, crisis management, American foreign policy, world economy, counterterrorism, international relations, and information security. I am a current PhD candidate of CICIR, and CICIR is supporting me as I conduct my research here at Emory. CICIR maintains academic exchanges with research institutions worldwide, receiving annually hundreds of overseas experts or scholars as invited guests, stop-over visitors or participants to CICIR-sponsored seminars, as well as sending a number of its own scholars for further studies, research, lectures, and bilateral or multilateral international symposiums.

In the US-based development community, much attention is focused on China’s growing role in Africa.  How has this growth impacted the institute’s work?

I should say, in the past, African studies in our institute was not as important as American or European studies. It has changed a lot with the increasing importance of Africa for China and also due to the attention of Western nations on China’s growing role in Africa. Many Western nations have called China’s strategy in Africa “new colonialism.” I’m not a specialist on this issue, but personally I think it’s because other nations don’t want to see a new huge competitor coming to their traditional backyard. 

As assistant director of the institute, what kinds of issues have you worked on?

As part of my focus on the Middle East and North Africa, I have visited Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt. China has been involved in Sudan’s oil market. In addition, China had to play a role in Sudan during the conflict in Darfur. For me personally, Sudan became my most important work. I had to follow the conflict every day and write several reports for the Chinese government. I visited Sudan several times and wrote several development-related reports that were important to not only the leaders of China, but also to the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan. The reports influenced China’s policy decision related to Darfur, as well as the future bilateral relationship between Sudan and South Sudan.  

Egypt is another important country to me. Egypt has always played an important political role in the region and has a very strong relationship with China. However, the revolution in Egypt brought confusion to China. We didn’t predict the revolution, which was the reaction of many Western countries as well, including the US. The 18-day period of revolution was a tough one for me. I lived in my office –monitoring the situation and writing reports to our government. 

And then after the revolution in Libya, there was another tough work period during the 11-day evacuation of Chinese workers. Tunisia is important due to its influence on the revolution. Algeria, at that time, was a puzzle as it remained immune to the crisis. So we asked: “What are the reasons and characteristics of the revolution? What will be going on in the future? What’s the impact on China’s interests? What should we do towards that, etc.?” In addition, I feel it is my responsibility and duty to do work for public diplomacy such as writing articles in newspapers and magazines or being interviewed by TV or broadcast to explain our positions toward some hot topics. 

You are here to work on your dissertation. What is the focus of your research? 

My dissertation focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest and most influential organization in the world of Islamic fundamentalism, but it has struggled more than 80 years to become a legal party. But now, it is reality. I’m trying to determine how we should gauge the trend of this particular movement—the Arab Spring—and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Is it long-term or is it just a bump in the process? China’s relationship with Egypt during the time of Mubarak was always strong as was the US relationship. However, now the relations are unpredictable. After writing a report to the Chinese government about the developments surrounding the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood, I thought it would be a good dissertation topic, especially since I had some firsthand knowledge. When I came to IDN in October, I connected with Professor Carrie Wickham here at Emory who studies the same topic. I’m trying to draw a conclusion about the Muslim Brotherhood and if its legalization in Egypt will push Egypt to become an Islamic state. 

In past weeks, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has made headlines for helping to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and then for issuing a decree giving himself sweeping new powers. The decree has set off mass protests. What do you think this means for the future of democratic governance in Egypt? And what are the implications for the region?

What is going on now in Egypt can be considered a constitutional crisis. I believe that the conflict between Muslim Brotherhood and other secular groups will continue in the future, but Morsi will probably make some compromise to hold his power given that pragmatism is their pivotal policy. If he does not want to be overthrown as “Mubarak Second” by the popular uprising, he has to do so. Besides, the whole world is watching. Morsi must consider the possible backlash seriously since Egypt is confronting economic woes. I think anything pertaining to this decree will continue to be resolved at the table. 

Generally, I am optimistic about the future for the region after the revolution. Currently, the phrase that describes the Arab Spring is “from chaos to change.” It doesn’t matter if the change is big or small; it’s better than chaos and better than no change. I think that the region will achieve democracy and regain stability in the future under the efforts of [the] Arab people and with help from the international community. 

Return to IDN News: Fall 2012 Article Index

IDN News