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Doctoral dissertation project of Lucas Brang

The Legal Conscience of a Rising Power – Chinese International Lawyers Between Post-Colonialism and Nationalism: 1979–Present (working title)

Recent scholarly debates around China’s rise in international law tend to oscillate between two sharply contrasting positions. According to the first view, which is particularly prevalent in Western research, China is seen as an apologetic objector to the post-Cold War international legal order, and the Chinese position is portrayed as being either formalistic or revisionist. The second view, which is held by most Chinese scholars and shared by many in the Global South, instead stresses China’s adherence to a peaceful development path along the lines long-advocated by the Third World. The first account tends to depict the legal developments of the post-Cold War era in a Eurocentric and end-of-history-esque fashion. In particular, it neglects the significant contribution made by Chinese legal scholars and the Third World more generally to the progressive development of international law in the recent past. The second, conversely, risks turning into an uncritical apology of current Chinese foreign policy; at times even extrapolating a Chinese sense of revisionism from its deep-historical experience of humiliation under the system of unequal treaties in the late 19th century.

Both views are thus markedly one-sided, and they equally neglect non-Western agency and the contribution of the Third World to the universalization of international law by framing their account in a way that highlights either Western dominance or Chinese revisionism. Moreover, this binary opposition in scholarly literature often leads to the false conclusion that China must either completely abandon its position of ‘exceptionalism’ and give in to the Western-dominated legal status quo, or else challenge this status quo with recourse to its own nationalist agenda. This false dilemma, I argue in my dissertation, is the result of the neglect in recent legal-historical scholarship of the late Cold War period in general, and its constitutive character for Chinese international law scholarship in particular. Addressing this shortcoming, my dissertation traces the formation of a distinct intellectual sensibility and professional identity among Chinese international lawyers over the course of the last four decades.

I argue that the early reform period (1979–1989) saw the emergence of a self-consciously post-colonial identity among Chinese international lawyers in an effort to align themselves with their counterparts in the Third World. Moreover, not only was this period institutionally and conceptually constitutive for the Chinese disciplinary identity – its genuine internationalism also prompts us to reconsider the commonly held negative characterizations of the current Chinese position, which in numerous ways continuous to adhere to this legacy. Stressing this post-colonial legacy, however, does not imply deterministic predictions about China’s rise. Rather, it encourages us to ask how this disciplinary legacy has shifted and changed in the following decades. The demise of Third World internationalism following the end of the Cold War thus leaves us with the open question of how this post-colonial legacy continues to influence current Chinese scholarship today, and whether Chinese international lawyers as a professional group can act as the ‘legal conscience’ of a rising China.


Short biography

Lucas Brang is a doctoral student at the Chair of Chinese Legal Culture, University of Cologne, and a fellow in the EU-funded Marie Curie programme of the graduate school. His dissertation is supervised by Prof. Björn Ahl (Cologne) and Prof. Samuli Seppänen (Chinese University of Hong Kong). Lucas’ research interests lie at the intersection of modern Chinese legal and intellectual history in a global perspective, focusing in particular on how the globalization of legal thought affects theoretical debates about constitutional and international law in China.

Lucas obtained his M.A. in Chinese Studies and Law from the University of Cologne in 2018. Prior to that, he was a visiting student at Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law in spring 2018, studying international law, and a Chinese language student at Nanjing University in 2014/5. During his studies, he received scholarships by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the China Scholarship Council, and the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung). Apart from academia, he gained work experience as an intern at the German Federal Foreign Office and as a translator from Chinese into German.

Contact: lbrang(at)smail.uni-koeln.de


Publications and conference papers

“Carl Schmitt and the Evolution of Chinese Constitutional Theory – Conceptual Transfer and the Unexpected Paths of Legal Globalization”, in: Global Constitutionalism (forthcoming).

“Die chinesische Völkerrechtslehre und ihr postkoloniales Erbe” [Chinese International Law Scholarship and its Post-Colonial Legacy], in: Zeitschrift für chinesisches Recht, Vol.25, No.3, 2018, pp.179–221.

“Chinese Political Constitutionalism and the Antinomies of Legal Globalisation”, 27 July 2019, paper presented to the 2019 Annual Conference of the European China Law Studies Association, Durham University, UK.


Cover photo: Wellington Koo (Gu Weijun), renowned Chinese international lawyer and diplomat, portrayed as a young man in 1912 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., USA, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002717877/) // Potrait photo: Patric Fouad

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities
CORDIS: http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/203182_de.html