From Opium to Expertise: A Moral Markets Perspective on US Foreign Policy and the Rise of China

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
202 South Hall (South Hall)
David Michael McCourt, UC-Davis, Davis, CA
From Opium to Expertise: A Moral Markets Perspective on US Foreign Policy and the Rise of China

David M. McCourt

Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of California-Davis


The present moment is ripe for a renewed set of cross-disciplinary conversations between sociology and International Relations. On the one hand, sociologists are renewing the call to overcome methodological nationalism by integrating transnational processes into the study of the social (e.g., Go 2012; Krause 2014). In IR, meanwhile, there is a revived interest in sociological approaches, with the so-called practice and relational turns—which both draw heavily on sociology—prominent. (Adler and Pouliot 2011; Jackson and Nexon 1999) Yet IR’s sociological turn has been selective and limited, and has largely ignored economic sociology, despite its potential. The study of markets has never been guilty of methodological nationalism; given IR’s turn to norms, practices, and culture on the one hand, and the turn in economic sociology to concerns with market-building as cultural and moral projects, the “moral markets” literature (Fourcade and Healy 2007) has special potential to enrich IR’s sociological turn.   

By way of a contribution, in this paper I adopt a moral markets perspective on US foreign policy and the “rise of China.” I argue that, theoretically, far from a set of state-on-state relationships, US-China relations might be better conceived as two shifting, co-constructed markets: the market for buying and selling American goods in China—first opium and spiritual salvation in the 19th century, health, education and freedom during the early-mid-20th, and military hardware and consumer products in the late 20th—and the linked market for selling knowledge of China in the US—from the widespread notion of “the noble Chinese peasant” worthy of US benevolence to the highly rationalized field of China expertise in military and economic matters that exists today.

My aim in the first instance then is to historicize US-China relations and thus contextualize the current moment. While fear of Chinese economic growth and the potential for its military expansion in the East Asia region and beyond has been growing in Washington since the mid-1990s (see Mann 2000), with the Obama administration announcing a strategic “pivot to Asia” in 2009, the notion that China represents a growing threat to the US hides the deep and long-standing interconnections between the two. With a brief hiatus between the communist takeover of China in 1949 and the reestablishment of relations in 1979, politics, economics and statebuilding in the United States and China have been intimately bound up with each other. During the 19th century, US businessmen and missionaries travelled to China to sell opium and spread the protestant message. During the early 20th century, until the war with Japan in 1937, close links existed between US political elites and those in China, many of whom were educated at US-established schools and universities in China and elite US universities. Links intensified during the World War Two, as the US armed, funded, and even after Harbor controlled the Chinese effort to resist the Japanese. Since the late 1970s, finally, China has represented a growing economic partner, but also problem, given its human rights record and the issue of America’s support for Taiwan. In short, from the early decades of the American republic, flows of money and people between China and the United States have been central aspects of the politics and economics of both countries.

The notion of moral markets as developed by Marion Fourcade, Kieran Healy, and others is useful as it allows for an understanding of markets that covers not only the economic but also the political and cultural investments of Americans in China. Included thereby is a focus on the various types of agents who emerge with power and status in view of their connections with China: from the 19th century opium smugglers—like FDR’s grandfather Warren Delano—to the State Department “China’s Hands” hounded out of government by Joseph McCarthy for their supposed communist sympathies, to today’s China experts working for think tanks, research centers, and universities. It is hoped that from this perspective there emerges a more historically sensitive understanding of China as an object of interest in Washington, one that adds a sociologically informed voice to a crucial debate in US foreign policy.


Adler, Emanuel, and Vincent Pouliot. 2011. International Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. 2007. Moral Views of Market Society. Annual Review of Sociology 33: 285-311.

Go, Julian. 2012. Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, and Daniel H. Nexon. 1999. Relations Before States: Substance, Process and the Study of World Politics. European Journal of International Relations 5 (3): 291-332.

Krause, Monika. 2014. The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mann, James. 2000. About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.