What do Chinese academics think about Brazil? Not much, apparently



"What does China think?", Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations asked in 2008 in his book with that same title. Clearly, the world was desperate to find out, and Leonard's analysis was translated into 15 languages. No country is as important yet so little understood as China. The situation in Brazil is a classic example: China turned into Brazil's most important trading partner in 2009, yet Brazil lacks the necessary knowledge about China that it has about other key partners, such as Argentina and the United States. Only a very limited number of Brazilian diplomats is fluent in Chinese, and there are no internationally leading China experts based at Brazilian universities. The public discussion about the implications of China's rise and its impact on Brazil remains superficial, reducing Brazil's capacity to constructively engage China.

However, over the past five years, both government and universities have started to catch up. The Brazilian embassy in Beijing has grown considerably and is now seen as a prestigious posting among Brazilian diplomats. Universities have set up new exchange programs with Chinese universities, and more and more Brazilian students are learning Chinese or study China in their masters and doctoral theses.

A good example is Ruichen Zheng, a graduate student in international affairs at the University of São Paulo (USP), who recently concluded her dissertation analyzing the role of Brazil in the Chinese academic debate. In order to understand what Chinese academics think and write about Brazil, she examined China's ten leading academic journals in international affairs over the past decade.

As one would expect, her research shows that the most frequent topics of analysis are Chinese foreign policy, Asia (particularly Japan) and the United States. Russia and India, two important neighbors, are somewhat less important, as is the European Union. Further down the list come Africa, the Middle East and finally Latin America. This supports the realist argument that great powers are the decisive actors in international affairs, and therefore deserve to be scrutinized much more closely than smaller actors.

What is more surprising, however, is that despite Brazil's far more visible role in global affairs, the growing importance of China-Brazil ties and common BRICS membership, the number of articles by Chinese academics that deal with Brazil has not grown at all. Just like 2003, Brazil remained, by 2012, a largely irrelevant niche topic. Over 90% of the few articles dealing with Brazil were published in the same journal, further evidence of how little interest editors of the leading mainstream journals have in Brazil. The author concludes that "Brazil, the first developing country with which China established a strategic partnership, and today its greatest trading partner in Latin America, is not a relevant topic in the academic discussion in China." Assessing the content of the few articles that did focus on Brazil, Ruichen Zheng affirms that most are descriptive and that there are "no divergent opinions" on the subject.

These results raise a series of important policy-related questions. Why do so few Chinese academics care about Brazil? Is this lack of interest limited to academia, or is the situation similar among Chinese policy makers? How does this lack of attention affect China's views on and policy vis-à-vis Brazil? What sources do Chinese policy makers consult when learning about their most important partner in Latin America? Do Chinese decision-makers have any idea about how Brazilian domestic public opinion, sometimes hostile against China's growing influence, constrains Brazilian negotiators?

In her analysis, Ruichen Zheng affirms that the language barrier makes studying Brazil difficult. After all, she writes, regional studies strongly depend on solid language skills to follow the domestic debates. The reader is likely to wonder whether the relatively low number of articles by Brazilian scholars published in international journals in English further aggravates the situation.

Perhaps to placate the worried Brazilian readership, the author ends her analysis on a hopeful note, writing that she expects a growing number of Chinese scholars to analyze Brazil as economic ties grow stronger still. She may have a point. After all, academia is often slow to adapt to new realities, and it may indeed take a few more years before the graduate students who decided to focus on Brazil begin to teach at Chinese universities and write in the leading journals. Still, for the time being, Brazil will remain a niche topic in Chinese academia.

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Photo credits: Felipe Dana/ Associated Press