This research examined how a sample of young leaders in China perceive conflict. The method was elicitive. Typical scenarios were constructed from post-graduate students’ stories in conflict resolution classes at the University of Nankai in Tianjin. The scenarios were discussed individually with the research participants, who came from diverse universities and parts of the Peoples’ Republic of China. Interviewees also undertook an activity that initiated a conversation about personal identity. The conversations were conducted in English, but measures were taken to improve understanding and allow some responses and clarification of meaning in Chinese. The indirect method of approaching conversation about conflict opened a space for dialogue, which allowed participants to discuss sensitive issues as they saw fit, without feeling challenged or defensive.
The thesis suggests there is a gap in the conflict resolution literature, with little representation or understanding of Chinese perspectives. This is important theoretically, because the omission of such a large and important population from the empirical base challenges the claim of conflict resolution to be universally applicable. It is also important practically in that, with the rise of the power and influence of China, there is a need to build mutual understandings of peace, conflict and harmony.
The qualitative analysis was conducted within an ecological framework and it was found that participants tended to conceptualise conflict from a macro perspective, and then situated the smaller conflicts at the lower level of the systems within this framework. This is in contrast to the assumption that people begin with the individual and micro-systems and work out to a broader understanding, but is consistent with a more collectivist culture. The thesis found that participants were most concerned with conflicts related to economic development within China and saw conflicts at the lower level of the system, such as interpersonal conflicts, as more manageable. A distinction was made between development-related problems concerning more ‘basic needs’ (such as the ability for people to meet their living needs, such as housing and employment) and the issues related to unequal ‘rural-urban development’ (representing concerns for the disparities between the more and less developed areas of China and the effects of urbanisation). The increasing wealth divide between the wealthy and poor and issues of corruption and misuses of power were also emphasised.
The participants saw conflict resolution as being a long-term proposition of gradual reform and progress, rather than a sudden transformation. The discussion of identity highlighted the core importance of identification with the collective. The way in which the participants talked about conflict and peace was analysed and various Chinese terms for conflict, harmony and peace were clarified. It was noted that the use of terms could vary in a dynamic way, depending on the political context, and that politically pragmatic decisions may be presented in cultural terms.
The study not only has implications for conflict resolution within China but also for dialogue between China and the West. Research on conflict resolution and peace studies in China is sparse, but where it is available tends to be split between a decontextualised, de-politicised cultural approach, which might examine Confucian values in the conflict resolution process, or studies within an international relations paradigm. This study indicates a need for both cultural and political analysis in
framing future dialogue with China and for development of the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding more generally.