As a consequence of China’s rising power and its growing presence on the European and Spanish agenda, its consideration as an object of study by think tanks and/or research centres has experienced a relative boom in recent decades. Although with ups and downs and perhaps at a slower pace than desired, if we follow the evolution of this particular aspect over the past 40-50 years, we could say that a general change in trend is perceptible: from studies centred on traditional fields such as language, literature, art, philosophy or history, a leap has been made to the social sciences in a broad sense, with special emphasis on economics and politics, but also anthropology and sociology. From the classical to the contemporary, without diminishing one or the other, this change has been led by new generations of sinologists, and universities and think tanks have played a major role in this process.

Sinology in Spain is at a disadvantage compared to other neighbouring countries (France, the United Kingdom, Germany…). First, we must consider the fact that there is hardly a long tradition in Spain in the study of international issues and in the creation of spaces for reflection, especially with a certain robustness and intending to be permanent. During the decades of Franco’s regime, and even beyond that, the Spanish lived largely with their backs turned to the outside world. Secondly, in relation to China, there is a first major barrier in the form of a language that is very different from Western languages, which often acts as a deterrent due to its high level of difficulty. Finally, leaving aside the contacts that form part of a common and inalienable historical heritage (the case of Diego de Pantoja, for example, in the 16th-17th centuries), except for its brief presence in Taiwan (16 years in the 17th century), Spain has not had the impact on the Chinese world that other European countries have had (such as Portugal through Macao or the United Kingdom through Hong Kong), which has allowed them to maintain a more active relationship over time in which mutual knowledge has developed in parallel [1]1 — Martínez, Jesús Manuel (2014). El descubrimiento de China. Madrid: Catarata. .

Spanish research in sinology is mainly conducted in universities and research institutions, within the framework of Asian language and cultural studies, along with Japanese and Korean studies. Attention to China is also increasingly strong in social science departments focusing on economic and trade issues. Among think tanks, a distinction should be made in terms of their fields of study – general or specialized.

Except for its brief presence in Taiwan, Spain has not had the impact on the Chinese world that other European countries have had

The quality of the Sino-Hispanic relationship has always been described as excellent [2]2 — Zhang Kai (2013). Historia de las relaciones sino-españolas. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press. . Since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties in 1973, there has been a constant momentum in line with the transformation that both countries have undergone since the late 1970s: Spain transforming itself into a political democracy without changing its economic model, China transforming its economic model without altering its political system [3]3 — Herrera Feligreras, Andrés (2014). España y China (1973-2005). Barcelona: Bellaterra. . In the course of these processes, the crossovers and growing sympathies created a critical mass that favoured exchanges – including in the academic field.

Casa Asia as a point of reference for a new era

At the beginning of the 21st century, the foundation of the Casa Asia consortium, at the behest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the support of other institutions (regional, local, corporate, etc.), acted as a catalyst for many activities and studies related to China, which thus acquired a major point of reference in Spain. Casa Asia, open to that continent but also aware of the need to develop a domestic integration effort, became an essential point of support to facilitate the expansion of sinology as well as acting as a strong focus to avoid dispersal. The Dialnet bibliographic database shows a remarkable leap in academic publications on China since the 1990s and especially in the 21st century [4]4 — Li Qiuyang & Ramírez, Raúl (2019). “Coming Through the History: the Revival and Challenge of Spanish Sinology”. León: Sinologia Hispánica 9, 2, pp. 1-30. .

Another element we should bear in mind is the promotion of “triangulation”, that is, the idea that Spain, because of its language and presence in Latin America, can play a significant role in boosting relations between China and that subcontinent [5]5 — Ríos, X (2013). Las relaciones hispano-chinas, Historia y Futuro. Madrid: Catarata. . We should also take into account China’s growing presence in Spain through its companies and its citizens, with an ever-changing and increasingly ambitious profile, but also through initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes or the location in Madrid of one of its few Cultural Centres in the world. The frequency of contacts at the bilateral level has increased, establishing relations and collaboration programmes that have gradually weaved a dense network of personal and institutional links, covering a very broad spectrum. One pending issue is the lack of involvement in the field of Chinese studies of the Chinese community living in Spain.

However, the dynamics of Chinese studies in Spain have suffered some recent setbacks. On the one hand, the 2008 financial crisis imposed significant budget cuts that affected the ambitious projects underway, so that Casa Asia was forced to keep a low profile. On the other, China and Latin America made it clear that they did not need mediators to promote their links, which meant that, apart from specific occasions, Spain has remained on the sidelines, relegated to the field of language and culture, but without a strategic role in terms of “hard power”. This put an end to the development of some programmes, cooled expectations and generated no small amount of frustration. Even so, it is fair to recognise that in the course of this effort an important improvement in human capital was generated, which resulted in a better quality and diversity of work and in the presence of numerous Spanish researchers in a number of universities in China and in other countries linked to sinology. This academic magma is a significant human capital which, as has happened in many fields of research that have taken root abroad, awaits its moment to join local projects of a certain size and ambition. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing the possibility of redressing the brain drain.

The situation in recent years has not only had an impact in Spain. Indeed, the crisis has caused an ebb that has resulted both in less ambitious projects and in the lack of resources to continue working on the persistent and necessary task of reducing isolation, fostering teamwork and sharing spaces to stimulate a domestic culture of cooperation. Things have become even more complicated in China in recent times, especially from 2012 onwards, with the presidency of Xi Jinping, and the adoption of more restrictions in that country that hinder academic work and research, particularly on policy- and politically-related subjects. This has also made Chinese studies less appealing to the new generations, far from the enthusiasm of the beginning of the 21st century. There has been a considerable clampdown on freedoms in China and the East-West ideological tensions have had undeniable consequences in this respect, making China lose its appeal to some groups, who have turned to other countries in the region (Japan, for example).

To rise to the challenge that China represents, it is essential to know and understand its dynamics

To rise to the challenge that China represents for any government, business or society, it is essential to know and understand its dynamics. And this is really worrying because in order to respond with any chance of success, we need to have a good understanding of the reality of the country that is set to become the world’s leading economic power in a few years’ time. If we do not have sinologists to guide our decisions, mistakes will be inevitable.

China and the Spanish think tanks

Think tanks, which could be described as organisations committed to researching and analysing issues that affect the general interests of society, have recently become popular in Spain. They may or may not be independent, depending on their origin and funding, whether in response to business or political interests. Independence is undoubtedly a factor that benefits the authority of their activity, and it often clashes with the legitimising eagerness of sponsors who do not always understand the importance of this principle. In Spain, the most influential think tanks include the Real Instituto Elcano, CIDOB and FAES, but there are many others: from the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies or INCIPE (Institute of International Issues and Foreign Policy), linked to the Ministry of Defence, to the Instituto Complutense de Estudios Internacionales or the IECAH (Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action), etc. They all share the goal of disseminating knowledge, which in many cases, outweighs the importance they attach to research. Be that as it may, to a greater or lesser extent, China, as a major international player, is always present, in parallel to other topics regarded as closer to Spain, such as relations with Latin America, the Mediterranean, or issues such as migration, climate change, the study of international crises, etc. The main Spanish think tanks have climbed positions in the annual rankings published by the University of Pennsylvania, although there is still room for improvement to achieve the same standards as some of our neighbours.

Beyond the highly complex nature of financing such institutions in a country with little tradition of commitment in this area, whether public or private, the first obstacle to overcome is the lack of civic interest in these issues, unless an acute crisis arouses the attention of public opinion. In any case, the intertwining of local and global issues, our insertion in the European framework, the realisation that any crisis of whatever kind and wherever it may be, ends up having repercussions on us, is gradually eroding this lack of interest. The fact that the media use specialists in these contexts to explain the key issues and expectations helps to give a proper dimension to the role of think tanks and to enhance and dignify their work. Therefore, one might hope that the trend is on the rise. Indeed, it should be if Spain aspires to develop its own foreign agenda and to better define its role in the European and international order.

In relation to China, so far, in a context of general political stability in the eyes of the general public, the economy has been at the forefront, with exceptions depending on specific circumstances such as the recent protests in Hong Kong. This is not helped by the fact that knowledge of China in the media is still weak, which explains the gross mistakes repeatedly made in elementary matters (particularly irritating in the incorrect use of names, for example). This makes it necessary, because of its influence on public opinion, to improve communication – and education – about a country that is set to play a key role in this century.

Among the major think tanks, research and publications on China are scarce and sometimes suffer from a lack of consistency in the human resources allocated to them. In the case of CIDOB, for example, which has a good track record in this area, its natural and objective allies are to be found in Catalan universities such as UPF, UOC and UAB. FAES, for its part, occasionally pays attention to China, with the publication of a periodic report containing news and materials of interest on that country. The Fundación Alternativas is not as active on China as it used to be, although it is trying to redress it. The Real Instituto Elcano, on the other hand, has kept China under sustained scrutiny, from the political and the economic point of view, and has shown a special interest in analysing China’s impact on Spain and in outlining responses by the Administration and the actors involved in the Sino-Spanish relationship [6]6 — Esteban, Mario (2018). Relaciones España-China. Madrid: Real Instituto Elcano. . In Madrid, such universities as the UAM, the UCM and the URJC collaborate with the think tanks.

One of the universities that have contributed most to the development of research and dissemination on China is the UAB, with its department of Chinese studies dating back to the 1980s. Similarly, the UAM’s Centro de Estudios de Asia Oriental was established in 1992. In Catalonia, both the UPF and the UOC have developed important educational initiatives in the new century. Universities such as Granada and Salamanca have excelled in Chinese language studies and in the promotion of Asian studies. The universities of Seville and Malaga have also devised specific courses, as have the URJC and the UCM, revealing an offer that has been negatively affected in more than one case the financial crisis [7]7 — Ollé, M. (2013). “Bases para un impulso educativo y científico común”, in Ríos, Xulio (coord.), Las relaciones hispano-chinas: historia y futuro. Madrid: Catarata, pp.176-193 .

In Galicia, mention must be made of the IGADI, which together with Casa Asia promoted the Observatory of Chinese Politics, a point of reference in the study of this country, with a constant analysis of its evolution and paying special attention to one of its key problems: Taiwan. There are, as well, associative mechanisms such as the AEEAO (Spanish Association of East Asian Studies), or Cátedra China that bring together researchers and experts as well as a broad community of people interested in China.

What role has China played in all this? Undoubtedly, it is in China’s interest to promote knowledge about its own identity and culture. This will strengthen mutual understanding, building bridges that improve communication at all levels. It also creates a pool of experts who may be influenced by its perceptions, logic and interests. This is why it allocates resources to this end. Hanban, which manages the international promotion of the Chinese language, for example, established a New Sinology Programme with the aim of attracting young researchers to study China in depth, carry out fieldwork or pursue doctoral studies. Many Chinese universities and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences itself are also pursuing initiatives to achieve visibility and influence. All of this nurtures a flow of contacts and exchanges that feeds back into the development of Sinology in Spain.

One of the universities that have contributed most to the development of research and dissemination on China is the UAB, with its department of Chinese studies dating back to the 1980s

Among the agents in Spain who deal with these issues, the points of view expressed in relation to China do not always coincide. As in the political class, there is a fairly broad consensus on the importance and interest that China has for Spain, but there are nuances and even disparate opinions on relevant issues (Spain’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investment, how to deal with human rights problems, etc.). Of course, this diversity is an expression of academic freedom that must be preserved and promoted without seeking alignment with the views sponsored by European, American or Chinese institutions.

Challenges ahead

Research in Spain on China faces many challenges. In general terms, if Spain wants to have more influence at the international level, it needs to focus on improving knowledge. This is generally recognised, but this recognition has often remained rhetoric and failed to translate into practice. The case of China is particularly demanding given its uniqueness and influence. The recurrence and sum of crises in recent years has led to some backsliding, and a more committed political will is required to move forward.

First, we need to prevent further deterioration and consolidate existing resources and mechanisms by enabling measures to ensure the quality and plurality of provision. Second, there is an urgent need to strengthen official leadership in order to ambitiously recover cooperation capacities, narrow the silos, avoid isolation and facilitate teamwork. Third, it is necessary to cultivate differential specificities that make us stand out in our relationship with China. This has to do with the process of maturing our own vision of China from our own cultural universe, which we must relate to the promotion of links with our geo-cultural space: Latin America, where the development of Chinese studies in many countries is progressing at a good pace, even better than in Spain, on the basis of robust institutions like the Colegio de México, for instance. Strengthening these links is no less important than reinforcing our ties with Europe.

On the other hand, a specific fact such as Spain’s administrative division in regional autonomous communities, so often vilified in Spain as the source of all our evils, can be of interest to China, whose territorial problems are one of its Achilles’ heels. Other experiences can provide useful knowledge, which will make us more relevant and, consequently, increase the visibility of our strategic thinking.

  • References

    1 —

    Martínez, Jesús Manuel (2014). El descubrimiento de China. Madrid: Catarata.

    2 —

    Zhang Kai (2013). Historia de las relaciones sino-españolas. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

    3 —

    Herrera Feligreras, Andrés (2014). España y China (1973-2005). Barcelona: Bellaterra.

    4 —

    Li Qiuyang & Ramírez, Raúl (2019). “Coming Through the History: the Revival and Challenge of Spanish Sinology”. León: Sinologia Hispánica 9, 2, pp. 1-30.

    5 —

    Ríos, X (2013). Las relaciones hispano-chinas, Historia y Futuro. Madrid: Catarata.

    6 —

    Esteban, Mario (2018). Relaciones España-China. Madrid: Real Instituto Elcano.

    7 —

    Ollé, M. (2013). “Bases para un impulso educativo y científico común”, in Ríos, Xulio (coord.), Las relaciones hispano-chinas: historia y futuro. Madrid: Catarata, pp.176-193

Xulio Ríos

Xulio Ríos is director of the Chinese Policy Observatory. Advisor to Casa Asia and coordinator of the Ibero-American Sinology Network, he collaborates with different media and specialized magazines. He sits on scientific councils and writing committees for various sinological publications. Professor and consultant of several university institutions in Spain, China and Latin America, he is the author of more than a dozen books on China, among which stand out China, ¿superpotencia del siglo XXI? (1997), China: de la A a la Z (2008), China moderna (2016), awarded the Cátedra China 2018 prize, or La China de Xi Jinping (2018).