Proselytizing Power: The Party Wants the World to Learn from Its Experiences

In recent years the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up its global outreach. Since Xi Jinping became General Secretary in November 2012, the CCP has significantly intensified its efforts to brief foreign political players on key policies and major meetings. It has done so through conferences in China and through sending official delegations to dozens of countries.

These briefings have received little coverage in Western media, but they represent an important push by Beijing to bolster its image abroad.

This new initiative is coordinated by the CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD), a ministerial-level agency that manages the Party’s relations with foreign political parties, international political organizations, and overseas political elites. The ILD maintains ties with over 600 such groups from 160-plus countries and has enjoyed a markedly higher profile under Xi’s advocacy of a “new type of political party relations” (xinxing zhengdang guanxi).

While most ILD activity flies under the radar, one prominent conference garnered worldwide attention in December 2017. That was the “CCP in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting,” an occasion that drew almost 300 political organizations from over 120 states, and at which Xi declared that China “does not import foreign models and does not export the China model.” This phrasing dialed down a much-discussed line in Xi’s 19th Party Congress report that claimed China’s governance “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

Yet many other ILD endeavors do seem to encourage foreign politicians, and especially those from developing nations, to recognize the merits of CCP policies. Last November, for instance, the ILD held a “briefing” (xuanjie hui) to explain the “spirit” of that October’s Fourth Plenum. Hosted in Nanchang, the event attracted over 200 delegates of political parties from almost 50 countries. Since the 19th Party Congress, similar ILD briefings for overseas party officials have highlighted various provinces’achievements” in “practicing Xi Jinping Thought.”

Perhaps the most striking departure in ILD work during the Xi administration, however, is the “new normal” of sending formal “briefing delegations” (xuanjie tuan) of senior cadres abroad to explicate CCP policies to foreign political parties, think tanks, and media. The practice apparently began after the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013, and has since become “institutionalized and regularized.” These delegations resemble the “central propaganda and explanation teams” (zhongyang xuanjiang tuan) that Beijing has long sent to instruct and motivate its own provincial leaders following big political meetings.

Although details surrounding the first set of briefings are sparse, official accounts reveal that such delegations visited at least 10 countries after the Fourth Plenum in 2014, over 40 countries each time after the Fifth Plenum in 2015 and the Sixth Plenum in 2016, and almost 80 countries following the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 (see Appendix for full details). Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Zambia, Ghana, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Belarus have already hosted briefings on the 2019 Fourth Plenum.

The ILD aims to assemble briefing delegations that are both “high-level” and “authoritative.” That means delegations are typically headed by leading cadres of ministerial or vice-ministerial rank and are comprised of policy drafters, academic experts, and cadres from central CCP agencies and local CCP committees. Each team visits up to three countries.

What happens at ILD briefings? An official summary of the November event in Nanchang said attendees watched a video on the “unique advantages” of China’s system, listened to talks on the Fourth Plenum by officials and scholars, and heard speeches by politicians from Laos, Syria, Mongolia, Cyprus, and Cambodia. These foreign speakers reportedly praised the Plenum’s decisions as contributing to a “China Solution” (zhong’guo fang’an) for international peace and development, and expressed a desire to strengthen “mutual study and mutual learning” with the CCP on “governance experiences” to advance “common prosperity.”

A laudatory People’s Daily report after the 19th Party Congress claimed that each overseas briefing won the CCP more “endorsers, supporters, and fellow travelers” (rentong zhe, zhichi zhe, tongxing zhe). Unsurprisingly, the article highlighted praise from Bangladesh and Azerbaijan to Denmark and Germany, and favorable media coverage in Cambodia and Nepal.

Whether these characterizations are accurate or not—Party media should be treated with caution—they can, at a minimum, be considered an indicator of what Beijing wants to hear. And this perspective suggests that the CCP wishes to use ILD diplomacy to not only urge acceptance of its domestic policies—the traditional goal of external propaganda—but also to spread its ideas about good governance to receptive policy actors around the world.

According to Song Tao, the ILD’s director since November 2015, through “exchanges and cooperation with foreign political parties” the agency “can influence the other side’s attitudes and policies toward China, and make the other side understand, respect, and approve our values and policies.” ILD diplomacy aims not only to increase support for China’s rise but also means “more people will study and learn from our experience of governance.”

Thus, the ILD’s activities raise further questions about whether Beijing is looking to spread a China Solution to other states’ development needs. While Xi argues that China does not seek to “export” its model wholesale, it appears that the CCP hopes increasingly to shape policy responses to the “vexing problems” of other governments.

Of course, simply meeting with CCP officials does not mean an interlocuter will come to embrace Beijing’s perspective—indeed, one could also gain the knowledge necessary to make informed critiques of Chinese governance—although the CCP must believe that, on aggregate, these exchanges are having a positive impact.

More research is needed on the effectiveness of ILD briefings for achieving Beijing’s goals, and on how they are received by different audiences. But this emerging phenomenon shows that the CCP is ever more conscious of the need to “tell China’s story well” to inform, persuade, and perhaps even inspire global political elites.

Neil Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at MacroPolo. You can follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work on politics, political economy, and US-China relations here.

Appendix: Countries Visited by Briefing Delegations after the 19th Party Congress

Please click here to download lists of the known countries, dates, leaders, and leader titles of the delegations that went abroad to spread the spirit of the 2013 Third Plenum, 2014 Fourth Plenum, 2015 Fifth Plenum, 2016 Sixth Plenum, 2017 Party Congress, and 2019 Fourth Plenum.

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