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Abroad or at Home, China Puts Party First
At the heart of Beijing's global influence plans is a clear Leninist vision.
It has been over a year since Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China has entered a “new era,” and his plan to restore the country to global prominence is clear: Just as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls China’s domestic life, it intends to control foreign policy as well.
While the CCP has always controlled the direction of foreign policy, its hand is increasingly visible in foreign-policy implementation: the CCP Central Committee—the center of political power in China—is returning to its own organizational strengths as a Leninist political party to push its interests in the global arena. A recent report compiled by top American China experts noted this increasingly assertive stance in the United States, but the CCP’s efforts are global.
As a Leninist organization, the CCP maintains its grip on power by penetrating the Chinese state with party branches and the robust, top-down command structure of its own bureaucracy. Concerned that reform of China’s institutions in recent decades had loosened the party’s grip on power, Xi has diligently gone about reclaiming political dominance for the CCP as the vanguard party, and for himself as the party’s representative.
The 19th Party Congress declared that “north, south, east, west, and center—the party leads everything.”
The principle of the party leading everything extends to China’s foreign affairs: the CCP—and nothing else—will deliver the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which will see China reclaim its rightful status as a (if not the) world power. In the midst of a massive bureaucratic reshuffle that took place in March, the party’s Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs was upgraded to a full commission—the Central Foreign Affairs Commission—charged with better coordinating foreign policy.
The Center for Advanced China Research’s Party Watch Annual Report 2018 (edited by the authors of this article) demonstrates that the arms of the Central Committee’s very own Publicity (originally more explicitly translated in English as ‘propaganda’), United Front Work, and International departments have grown long indeed; they now push party policies in every corner of the world.
These agencies of influence stretch far and wide to reach the sources of political influence in other countries, using tactics that foreign governments are only now beginning to understand.
This trend is perhaps most visible in the party’s propaganda efforts targeting foreigners—”external propaganda work,” in CCP parlance. Many expressed surprise that CCP propagandists had the gall to place state media outlet China Daily inserts into the Des Moines Register in late September. The paid advertisements lamented the U.S.-China trade war. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers, made to look like news.” The effort was clumsy (the Register’s own op-ed “Americans Know Blatant Propaganda When They See It” stresses this), but foreign countries can expect more sophisticated attempts in the future.
That is because external propaganda has enjoyed a boost in support from Xi Jinping as a crucial part of China’s foreign policy. In March, the Publicity Department took over a large segment of this work through a new superagency called Voice of China. The agency is a merger of state media giants China Global Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio.
The consolidation of external propaganda organs under the Publicity Department’s management means the CCP Central Committee enjoys more direct influence over messages aimed at the world. Political scientist David Shambaugh notes in the report that the CCP’s global propaganda efforts “have become a key element in China’s global posture. They are not likely to decrease.”
In its influence operations, the Publicity Department works together with the Central Committee’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), a body that has recently caught the attention of foreign governments. As the University of Canterbury’s Anne-Marie Brady explains, the united front is a classic Leninist strategy for consolidating communist power by “forging the broadest possible coalition of interests so as to undermine the ‘chief enemy.’”
While the party utilizes united front work to unify a diverse set of interest groups to support communist rule, the UFWD is now ramping up its campaign to attract the support of international actors for China’s foreign policy.
Examples of the department’s global operations are numerous. In Australia, a June 2017 report by Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigated CCP efforts to influence Australian politics through campaign donations; in October 2017, the Financial Times reported that the UFWD’s own teaching manual instructs united-front cadres to target Chinese-Canadian politicians for their operations; and earlier this month a New Zealand lawmaker revealed that he was instructed by his own party leadership to obscure a donation from a businessman associated with the department, raising the same foreign-influence concerns as those of Australia. Despite these growing revelations, Brady notes that the CCP’s self-confidence has led to a united-front counteroffensive instead of a tactical retreat.
She also rightly points out that the CCP’s global united-front work must be understood beyond discrete actions by the UFWD, as it informs the party’s overall strategy for cultivating global support for China’s rise. This is most visible today in the Belt and Road Initiative, the party’s plan for forming a China-centered economic and strategic bloc.
“Through the united front strategy,” Brady writes, “the CCP has seeded allies and clients throughout the economic and political elite of many countries at the national as well as the local level and is getting them to promote acceptance for the Belt and Road Initiative in their respective countries.”
The centrality of united front work to China’s foreign affairs under Xi has led the party to shore up the power of the UFWD over foreign affairs. The March bureaucratic changes that saw external propaganda work subsumed into the Publicity Department also saw the UFWD take over the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO). Although the UFWD will continue to use the OCAO name as a front in its dealings with ethnic Chinese abroad, its executive powers now reside in the party center.
The third party body taking a more active role in foreign policy is the Central Committee’s International Department, initially established in the 1950s to cultivate the CCP’s relations with foreign communist parties. Over the past few decades, the department’s contacts have expanded to include a diverse array of political parties in nearly every country of the world.
The International Department is actively expanding its activities in pursuit of building a global consensus on China’s foreign policies, from its assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea and efforts to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence to the Belt and Road Initiative. At a highly publicized event this year, the International Department succeeded in getting representatives of over 300 political parties from more than 120 countries to sign a declaration of support of Xi Jinping and the CCP called the “Beijing Initiative.” The department reports that delegates from both the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties attended the event, with Tony Parker, treasurer of the Republican National Committee, honoring the occasion with a speech.
While efforts such as these may not translate directly to a global consensus in China’s favor, these interparty exchanges are designed to identify and cultivate individual supporters of China within foreign political parties—a slower and more subtle form of influence.
The party’s consolidation of control over the implementation of foreign policy reflects the direction of Chinese politics under Xi Jinping that is unlikely to change in the near future. In March, China’s leaders voted to remove presidential term limits from the constitution, paving the way to extend Xi’s tenure. Rumors earlier this year suggest the potential for further structural consolidations of foreign-policy bodies in the future.
Foreign governments and other targets of China’s influence operations must therefore acclimate themselves to the unique characteristics of China’s party-driven foreign policy. To begin, they must recognize the various agents of China’s foreign-influence operations as carrying out the CCP center’s unified action plan to facilitate China’s rise. Only then can foreign governments better assess how to address them with a whole-of-society response.
Julia Bowie is Editor of the Party Watch Initiative at the Center for Advanced China Research, and an M.A. candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University.