Between Sovereignty and Legitimacy: China and UNESCO, 1946–1953

Gordon Barrett, Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese History & Politics, has published a new article in Modern Asian Studies on China's relationship with UNESCO.


UNESCO's founding in 1946 coincided with the resumption of hostilities between China's ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) and their Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rivals for power. The new international organization's officials in Paris and its representatives on the ground in China were thus forced to navigate a fractious and fluid set of national circumstances that would result in an ambiguous outcome in 1949, with regimes on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan both claiming to represent ‘China’. Although the KMT-led Republic of China continued to claim membership in UNESCO until the 1970s, the international organization nevertheless continued to operate within the People's Republic of China (PRC) for a number of years. Exploring the relationship between the issue of Chinese representation in UNESCO and the organization's on-the-ground presence from the mid-1940s through to the early 1950s, this article argues that domestic and international factors were inescapably intertwined in shaping the trajectory of Chinese relations with international organizations during this period. While CCP officials demonstrated a mixture of ideology and pragmatism, similar to their handling of foreign entities and groups present in the PRC after its founding, engagement with UNESCO was significantly shaped by the complexity and depth of the KMT's engagement with the international organization from its inception onwards. The CCP's relations with UNESCO underscore the extent to which the emerging Cold War—and China's place within it—was ultimately characterized by complexity and contingency.

Dr Gordon Barrett is Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese History & Politics