Chinese Diplomacy: The West vs. Authoritarianism

by: Nile Johnson


What you can do:

  • Call your local Congressperson to increase the budget for the US State Department. Recent budget cuts have made retaining the effectiveness of US diplomacy difficult. 
  • Raise awareness about Chinese human rights abuses to hold the Chinese government accountable for their actions
  • Vote for leaders who value the U.S. alliance system. It is necessary for the US to rely on its democratic allies for strength to combat the growing advocacy for authoritarian governments.

Recently, President Xi Jinping declared that extreme poverty, defined as earning less that 2300 yuan (a little less than a dollar) a day, has been eradicated from China[1]. Although this may be seen as one of China’s success stories, the story was not just about uplifting the needy but showing off China’s political model.  

In the United States, recent coverage of Chinese diplomacy has been dominated by talk of how “aggressive” it has become. In a recent Economist article, it was revealed that Chinese diplomats are referred to as “wolf warriors” behind the scenes, because of their inclination to attack foreign critics[2]. To non-Western audiences, by contrast, Chinese officials have adopted a much softer tone. They preach the virtues of a form of governance that they believe is making China rich and can help other countries as well[3]. As a result, it is unsurprising that the leaders of developing states have adopted this train of thought. The secretary-general of Kenya’s ruling Jubilee party, Mr. Tuju, was quoted as saying that “China’s Communist Party should be an example for [his own government]”[4].

In 2017, President Xi caused a stir by openly suggesting that China’s developmental model offered “a new option” for other countries, and that a “Chinese approach” would solve humanity’s problems [5]. While President Xi later walked back on the comments made in his speech by saying that he did not plan to export a “China model”, China’s diplomats have been, in effect, doing the opposite [6]. Many currently work for a branch of the Communist Party called the International Department; its role: to win support for China among foreign political parties [7].

Under President Xi, one of the department’s main activities has been organizing training sessions for foreign political parties, especially those from developing countries [8]. While the International Department does not say outright that authoritarianism is good, its mission is clearly to promote the virtues of strong centralized leadership [9]. In November, Song Tao, the department’s boss, claimed in an online briefing of party leaders from 36 sub-Saharan African countries that the party’s achievements in development proved the wisdom of five-year plans (series of social and economic development initiatives issued since 1953 shaping China’s political and economic life) and could “serve as a reference” for his audience [10]. 

While it is unclear what foreign party members gain from China’s training sessions, the threat they pose is potent. The department says it has contact with more than 600 political organizations in over 160 countries [11]. Under President Xi such engagements have only grown. In a study published by International Studies Quarterly, Professors Hackenesch and Bader from the German Development and the University of New Amsterdam, respectively, found that the number of high-level party-to-party meetings increased by more than 50% between 2012 and 2017, to more than 230 annually [12]. This increasing level of Chinese activity is reminiscent of “Comintern” (International organization that advocated for the spread of communism during the Cold War). 

One crucial difference, however, is that China is not preaching communism. Its aim, rather, is to show that a country can become successful without being democratic. That message finds attentive ears among politicians who find the checks and balances of democracy irksome. In June, Kenya’s Mr. Tuju was challenged about his party’s affection for the Chinese Communist Party by a reader of a Nairobi newspaper. He replied that he did not see what was wrong with “learning from the most successful and the best run” party in the world. Given the numerous Chinese abuses over the past few years such as the Uighur internment camps and the general lack of free speech, it is imperative for the United States to craft a similar diplomatic response where human rights are valued. A lack of response would undermine the role of democracy as a tool of progress. 


Works Cited:

[1] “Zero Poverty: China Eliminates Absolute Poverty One Month before Self-Imposed Deadline.”404, 2020, news.cgtn.com/news/2020-11-23/China-eliminates-absolute-poverty-one-month-before-schedule-VEp8VAJJS0/index.html. 

[2] “China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy Gamble.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 2020, www.economist.com/china/2020/05/28/chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomacy-gamble

[3] Jinping, Xi. “Full Text of Xi Jinping Keynote at the World Economic Forum.” CGTN America, 17 Jan. 2017, america.cgtn.com/2017/01/17/full-text-of-xi-jinping-keynote-at-the-world-economic-forum.

[4] Communist Party of China Shares Tips with Kenya’s Jubilee Party, 2018, www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/ceke/eng/zkgx/t1577470.htm. 

[5] “How China’s Communist Party Trains Foreign Politicians.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 2020, www.economist.com/china/2020/12/10/how-chinas-communist-party-trains-foreign-politicians.

[6] A ‘CHINA MODEL?’ BEIJING’S PROMOTION OF ALTERNATIVE GLOBAL NORMS AND STANDARDS. 2020, www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-10/March_13_Hearing_and_April_27_Roundtable_Transcript.pdf.

[7] International Department Central Committee of CPC, 2020, www.idcpc.org.cn/english/.

[8] “How China’s Communist Party Trains Foreign Politicians.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 2020, www.economist.com/china/2020/12/10/how-chinas-communist-party-trains-foreign-politicians.

[9] International Department Central Committee of CPC, 2020, www.idcpc.org.cn/english/.

[10] “IDCPC Holds Special Briefing for Africa on the Spirit of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee.” International Department Central Committee of CPC, 2020, www.idcpc.org.cn/english/news/202011/t20201124_140930.html.

[11] International Department Central Committee of CPC, 2020, www.idcpc.org.cn/english/.[12] Hackenesch, Christine, and Julia Bader. “The Struggle for Minds and Influence: The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Outreach.” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 3, 2020, pp. 723–733., doi:10.1093/isq/sqaa028