Who, What Why: Rachel Ann Hulvey

Political science Ph.D. candidate Rachel Ann Hulvey’s research looks at Chinese foreign policy, soft power, and international order through the lens of internet governance.

Rachel Hulvey stands in front of a brown stone building and steps.
Rachel Ann Hulvey is a Ph.D. student whose research looks at Chinese foreign policy, power, and international order. (Image: Courtesy of Rachel Ann Hulvey)
    • Who

      Political science Ph.D. student Rachel Ann Hulvey is fascinated by China. What started as an interest in Chinese culture turned into studying Mandarin and living in Shanghai and Beijing. While getting her master’s degree in international relations at Columbia University, Hulvey grew intrigued by China’s role as a rising power and began to look at Beijing’s interest in achieving global authority and influence. She credits an early job in advertising as helping craft her research focus.

      “My background in advertising pointed me to a different type of power than those most widely considered by international relations theory,” she says, noting that many political scientists focus on material power, especially a rising power’s ability to coerce other countries. Instead, Hulvey focused on soft power, strategies used to gain influence through attraction rather than coercion, she says. “Throughout American history, industries such as Hollywood and Madison Avenue have created a degree of attraction to the U.S. among foreign audiences,” says Hulvey. “I was seeking to understand how China engages in strategies to cultivate influence and attraction.”

    • What

      Hulvey’s dissertation, Mobilizing for Sovereignty: How China’s World Order Gains Followers, looks at China’s rise and influence on international order in an area where rules are currently under development: those governing the internet. As China seeks to shift the status quo, would some countries support the Beijing-led vision of international order, and, if so, which?

      “As China rises, great power competition for developing international order is particularly active in cyberspace,” she says. Chinese officials call for the reform of international rules, but they need the approval of other countries to enact its vision. China has been described as a country without real or natural allies, she notes, and it also faces counter-narratives of a “China threat,” which limits the appeal of its global leadership. 

      Hulvey’s work looks at how China generates support for its vision of order and under what conditions is China successful through an understanding of soft power. To attract support for developing new rules and institutions among United Nations members, Xi directs officials to cultivate what’s known as “discourse power” (huayu quan) on the world stage, she says. Through original data from cybersecurity negotiations that includes text analysis and elite experiments with diplomats, her research demonstrates that China’s message of cyber sovereignty allows the country to mobilize support and shape global alignments in favor of its proposals.

      Rachel Hulvey stands on the Great Wall of China, with a hazy mountain in the background.
      Ph.D. student Rachel Ann Hulvey, at the Great Wall of China in 2018, researches Chinese foreign policy, power, and international order. (Image: Courtesy of Rachel Ann Hulvey)
    • Why

      Hulvey says focusing on international attempts to regulate the internet and shape the values at the heart of global governance “felt like the perfect space to look at how a rising power impacts international order, particularly in an issue area where liberal values of internet freedom reign supreme,” she says. China presents a different vision focused on the rights of governments and the need to protect and defend cyber sovereignty.

      Cybersecurity, says Hulvey, is a fascinating issue to examine because the rules and the institutions that govern new technologies are currently under development. She has conducted fieldwork at the United Nations Open Ended Working Group and International Telecommunications Union, where international rules to govern digital technologies and manage security threats are under formation. This involved speaking with diplomats, including those from China’s delegation, about China’s strategy and its efficacy.

      She says her research also offers policy implications because it demonstrates the conditions when China achieves global influence. “Beyond the meeting between Xi and Biden in San Francisco and the focus on U.S.-China relations, I hope that policymakers also consider issues of global governance,” she says. “I see cyberspace as a place where I can explore questions about China’s rise and questions about the impact that China will have on the world.”