China’s Strategic Use of Research Funding on International Law

Many reports have focused on the way China’s government uses censorship to suppress certain views in its academic sphere, both of Chinese academics and foreign presses. But how does it use carrots as opposed to sticks? Given China’s rising international importance, it is worth considering the topics the Chinese government is encouraging its international law academics to study through the strategic use of research funding.
When I undertook a comparison of international law academics in different states in my book “Is International Law International?,” the way in which international law academics were often concentrated in different subfields was a notable issue. In the United States, for instance, it is common to find international lawyers who focus on foreign relations law, international law in domestic courts, human rights law, international criminal law, the use of force and international humanitarian law. There are some international trade lawyers but not many investment treaty lawyers. Law of the sea experts are almost entirely absent from most top U.S. schools. In contrast, many international law academics at elite Chinese law schools specialize in international economic law and the law of the sea.
The government’s strategic use of research funding helps, in part, to explain the subject matter foci of the Chinese international legal academy. There are three main sources of research funds for academic legal projects in China: the National Social Science Fund of China (NSSFC), the Ministry of Education Fund and the Ministry of Justice Fund. The NSSFC is an accessible example because it puts out an annual call for proposals for academic funding accompanied by a list of recommended research topics. The People’s Daily Online reports that Chinese officials intend for the NSSFC to support strategic research concerning economic and social development in China. The deputy head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee (sometimes also translated as the “Propaganda Department”), Wang Xiaohui, stated the results would be useful for the government in its decision-making processes.
Using information available online, I compiled a list of the international law topics included in the NSSFC’s Recommended Research Topics (in Chinese) for 2009-14, and in the list of Funded Research Proposals (in Chinese) for 2007-14. (For full detail on the topics, including translations, and how I selected and categorized them, see Appendix D in my book.) Figure 1 shows which topics were recommended, and Figure 2 shows which projects were actually funded. As these charts illustrate, the Chinese government incentivizes Chinese international law academics to focus their research on certain areas of national interest, including most prominently, international economic law and the law of the sea. And within these topics, the government often creates incentives for them to develop a nationalist bent in their research.