By Jianli Yang
The Communist Party of China (the CCP) celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this month. Founded in July 1921, the party has transformed itself from one based on communist revolutionary ideas to one that is driven by state capitalism. The party largely draws its legitimacy from the economic success of China in the last two decades, but given the rising income inequality, aging population, structural slowdown, and environmental issues, the party is compelled to build a positive narrative that constantly reinforces a positive image for China and makes a case for the CCP’s continued rule in China. While the CCP’s narrative-building exercises may be lauded domestically, international audiences have been skeptical about Beijing’s global ambitions.
At a juncture when China is already being criticized for numerous reasons—be it the gross human rights violations in Xinjiang, not raising an early and timely alarm about the COVID-19 pandemic, crushing liberty and the rule of law in Hong Kong, or for mistreating African nationals in Guangzhou—China is yet to drastically swing global public opinions in its favor. In addition to this, the border issues with India, the hostage diplomacy with Canada, and the diplomatic bickering with the United States and Australia all suggest mounting negative views against China globally.
Amidst this, China is trying to propagate a positive image for itself where the International Department (ID) of the CCP is playing a crucial role. The ID maintains connections with about 400 political parties in over 140 countries. In November 2017, the ID hosted a four-day meeting between the CCP and representatives from 300 foreign political parties and organizations. According to David Shambaugh, no other ruling party devotes so much attention and effort to maintain ties with political parties in other countries as much as the CCP does. These party-to-party ties have been an important factor in cultivating strong political ties with other states.
China-Africa relations is a case in point where Africa has become a prime testing ground for expanding the political outreach of the party. The CCP, since it came to power in 1949, intensified its relations with African countries under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. The CCP supported liberation movements by providing ideological and military training, and it donated supplies to support guerrilla warfare. However, in Africa’s post-independence period, the CCP has engaged with the ruling parties of Africa to enhance China’s overall presence in the continent both politically and economically.
The party-to-party exchanges, training programs, and seminars between CPC and other African political elites and senior cadres have become the key way to export the authoritarian governance model of the CCP. Such training exercises are geared toward gaining acceptance for the CCP’s core political values among the new generation leaders in the developing countries of Africa. More importantly, the Chinese leaders, through these exchanges and programs, build strong network connections with their African counterparts, which paves the way for further diplomatic maneuvering and builds effective support for China at the multilateral international forums. This has become a strategic tool for Beijing to exercise influence in these countries and align African leaders’ political decisions with Beijing’s priorities.
The CCP is thus gradually making deeper inroads into African ruling parties by organizing such seminars on a regular basis. There are numerous examples of how ruling parties in African countries such as Ethiopia, Congo, and Zimbabwe have been influenced by the political party training programs that the CCP conducted. Yun Sun, a Brookings fellow, mentioned how Ethiopia is the “most eager student” for ideological training. Ethiopia’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) learned organizational work, ideological work, propaganda, and cadre training from these training programs. Recently, in 2020, the CCP organized virtual sessions for the Congolese Party of Labour officials on how the “ruling party can play a leadership role” and other topics related to COVID-19 as well as social and economic development. These trainings educate the party members about how the Chinese government monitors, guides, and manages public opinion, including organizational setup, using technology, and maintaining media relations.
The CCP has also funded political schools in African countries, for instance, financing and building the Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania, which is a political training academy for local leaders. Apart from propagating political content, these engagements have bolstered China’s foreign policy interests. In 2019, the International Department hosted the Mozambique Liberation Front, and a senior cadre of the party expressed support for China’s suppression of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Similarly, the ID also hosted a delegation from Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress, and the meeting focused on promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It has also been noted that these training programs are designed for officials or party members who are under the age of 40. These include the African Political Party Leaders training program under the Sino-Africa Young Political Leaders Forum, when China trained more than 200 young African political leaders. The scale and scope of these programs are expanding, illustrating how the CCP wants to influence the young leaders with the political and cultural values of the party. In its official statements, China emphasizes that these training programs are merely an exchange of ideas, but as Yun Sun points out, these trainings will have a profound “psychological and political impact over the choices and preferences of African political parties.”
In the case of Africa, these party exchanges have paved the way for diplomatic exchanges between the states. In 2006, the ID played a crucial role in getting the heads of state to attend the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing. Similarly, the party cultivated ties with countries that recognized Taiwan and helped to secure Chinese core national interests on the African landscape. With President Xi Jinping coming to power in 2012, the approach of these party-to-party trainings has gained strong ideological dimensions.
While the African leaders and the people should reflect on the 100-year journey of the CCP, they should be careful about what they learn from it. African leaders should be more skeptical of a party that has a deep controversial history with programs such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and consider whether these are the values they want to espouse and follow.
This article first appeared in Providence on July 30, 2021