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Probing the behavior of an international bully

Political science doctoral student Ketian Zhang sheds light on China's use of coercion in foreign policy, hoping to span a deep divide.
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Ketian Zhang, the daughter of Chinese Communist Party officials, studies Chinese foreign policy at MIT from a unique dual perspective.
Ketian Zhang, the daughter of Chinese Communist Party officials, studies Chinese foreign policy at MIT from a unique dual perspective.
Photo: Aidan Milliff

Although she grew up in a family of Communist Party stalwarts, Ketian Vivian Zhang never felt entirely at home in China’s patriotic education system.

“I learned that the world was less black and white than the party made it out to be,” says Zhang, a doctoral student in political science. By the time she was in high school, she was actively seeking alternative perspectives on China and its role in the world.

This search led to study abroad — first at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then at MIT, where she has been studying international relations and comparative politics. More specifically, Zhang researches the strategies China has deployed since 1990 to achieve its ends in the world. The culmination of this work will be a dissertation provocatively titled “Calculating Bully — Explaining Chinese Coercion.”

By coercion, Zhang means the array of methods China employs to make other nations comply with its wishes in geopolitical and economic spheres. While other nations practice this form of statecraft, her research reveals some uniquely Chinese approaches.

“China’s choice of tools tends to be non-militarized,” Zhang says, especially in historical contrast with other rising powers. “They prefer to use economic and diplomatic sticks.”

She has also learned that China will resort to coercion only in very specific circumstances. 

“China carefully balances between the costs and benefits of coercion,” she believes. “The benefit is credibility — appearing strong in front of other countries — and the costs involve economic vulnerability, such as loss of market access or materials, as well as geopolitical backlash, in the form of military or other forms of retaliation.”

Her research investigates episodes of coercion, including those that involve Taiwan, Tibet, and territorial disputes. She takes particular interest in the South China Sea, a body of water that has sparked conflicts among China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and others.

In a 2012 episode, Zhang reports that “China used bananas to advance its national security interests,” placing a quarantine on this fruit from the Philippines. “They wanted the Philippines to feel pain, and it worked, with the Philippines acquiescing to Chinese control of a block in the South China Sea.”

For Zhang, this case embodies the Chinese proverb, “You can kill a chicken to scare the monkey,” she says. The show of economic force against the Philippines scares Malaysia and Vietnam, and “sends a signal to the outside world, including the U.S,. that China is strong, and should not be messed with.”

Zhang views China’s use of timing, targets, and tools of coercion as “very rational and logical.” Her case studies demonstrate a clear pattern, she says. “China resorts to coercion when the credibility benefit is high and economic vulnerability cost is low, and refrains from military coercion when the geopolitical backlash cost is high.”

For her doctoral research, Zhang has assembled an extensive database of cases of Chinese coercion, built on interviews with Chinese officials and an examination of primary source documents in central and provincial government offices. For this kind of unique access, Zhang has leveraged her connections and deep knowledge of how government there works.

“Everything functions at a very personal level in China,” she says. “It’s who you know, even in academic work.”

What Zhang brings to this work is not just connections, but a singular vantage point, the result of studying her nation of origin, both up close and at a distance. She can scrutinize China’s actions in the world simultaneously as a foreigner and as an insider. In some ways, this is an ideal outcome for Zhang, who once imagined working for the diplomatic service.

“When I was 13, I read a biography of [former U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice, and my dream job was to work in the foreign ministry,” she recalls. “But I was disillusioned after learning that girls were not welcome in the ministry, and I decided that studying international relations should be my goal.”

After she realized she would have a better window on this subject outside of China, Zhang left Zheijiang University after two years and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There she acquired her first uncensored view of the world she had left, as well as an understanding of misconceptions Americans hold about China. She began to feel “broad interest — a real passion” for improving U.S.-China relations.

During a stint in Washington, at the Institute for Policy Studies, Zhang researched U.S. military posture in the Pacific, and met officials from the Department of Defense. “I got interested in the high politics of things,” she says. She was drawn to graduate school at MIT, with such Asia and security studies scholars as M. Taylor Fravel and Stephen Van Evera, spotting the opportunity to dig deep into the “intersections between international economics, diplomacy, and security.”

Zhang hopes her work will contribute not just to policy debate but to policy action. “Understanding the logic of China’s behavior on the current stage will help us make accurate predictions about what they will do, and anticipate important questions about war and peace,” she says.

When she is not researching or teaching about such weighty matters, Zhang runs 10K road races along the Charles River, and reads. “I like Jane Austen, as well as books about magical things, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, who never dies,” she says. “These worlds are very far away from the worlds of gunpowder and nuclear arms that I live in every day.”

After she receives her degree this coming June, Zhang aims to find an academic position in which she can advance her current research, engage students as a teacher and mentor, and continue to draw on her unique perspectives as a Chinese citizen with a deep connection to the United States.  

“I can serve as a bridge between the two nations, someone who can be relevant and helpful both to the U.S. and China,” she says. “What I want to do is show each side that its picture of the other should be much more complicated and nuanced.”

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