Is Nepal Under China’s Thumb?

Ahead of this month’s elections, Nepal’s democracy faces a dual challenge: its own factionalism and the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence.

By , a senior research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka wave.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka wave.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka wave before their meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 26. PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images

On Nov. 20, Nepalis will head to the polls to elect their 11th government since the country became a democratic republic in 2008, after more than 200 years of monarchical rule. In that time, the continuous formation and breakdown of alliances have plagued Nepal’s politics, leaving voters disillusioned. Yet there is still a greater threat to the country’s young democracy: China has become increasingly more involved in Nepal’s domestic politics.

Geography makes engagement with China a necessity for Nepal, but during the country’s transition to democracy, this relationship quickly developed into what onlookers inside Nepal describe as foreign meddling in Kathmandu’s political affairs. Nepal features prominently in China’s growing assertiveness in South Asia, and the outcome of the vote could either blunt or enhance Beijing’s strategic agenda as Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his historic third term. China will be keeping a close eye on the country’s upcoming elections, which will see briefly united communist parties compete against each other once again.

Leftist and communist ideologies have formally existed in Nepali political discourse since the mid-20th century. In the late 1940s, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, the Communist Party of Nepal was in its formative stage, seeking to offer an alternative to the monarchy’s autocratic rule. Sympathies for the communist movement continued into the late 1990s and early 2000s, manifesting in popular support for the Maoist insurgency that eventually oversaw the end of former King Gyanendra Shah’s rule. Today, all major Nepali political parties still see themselves as proponents of democratic socialism.

On Nov. 20, Nepalis will head to the polls to elect their 11th government since the country became a democratic republic in 2008, after more than 200 years of monarchical rule. In that time, the continuous formation and breakdown of alliances have plagued Nepal’s politics, leaving voters disillusioned. Yet there is still a greater threat to the country’s young democracy: China has become increasingly more involved in Nepal’s domestic politics.

Geography makes engagement with China a necessity for Nepal, but during the country’s transition to democracy, this relationship quickly developed into what onlookers inside Nepal describe as foreign meddling in Kathmandu’s political affairs. Nepal features prominently in China’s growing assertiveness in South Asia, and the outcome of the vote could either blunt or enhance Beijing’s strategic agenda as Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his historic third term. China will be keeping a close eye on the country’s upcoming elections, which will see briefly united communist parties compete against each other once again.

Leftist and communist ideologies have formally existed in Nepali political discourse since the mid-20th century. In the late 1940s, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, the Communist Party of Nepal was in its formative stage, seeking to offer an alternative to the monarchy’s autocratic rule. Sympathies for the communist movement continued into the late 1990s and early 2000s, manifesting in popular support for the Maoist insurgency that eventually oversaw the end of former King Gyanendra Shah’s rule. Today, all major Nepali political parties still see themselves as proponents of democratic socialism.

Since Nepal embraced democracy, the CCP seems to have taken advantage of the willingness of some communist factions in Nepal to deepen diplomatic ties. Seeking to mitigate political instability, China has pushed for a united leftist party in Nepal that would enjoy widespread support and govern in the favor of officials in Beijing. By attempting to shape a hegemonic party that could rule unopposed, erode the apolitical nature of Nepal’s police, and seek to undermine the free press, the CCP machine appears intent on making Nepal serve China’s interests.


Although Nepal’s dominant leftist ideology is inviting for the CCP, its diplomats appear baffled by divisions among seemingly aligned parties. In 2017, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) announced that they would contest that year’s general election as an alliance. Many analysts suspected the CCP played a role in the merger. The newly formed Nepal Communist Party took office in 2018, but by 2021, the coalition had fallen apart. The Maoists entered into yet another partnership with the center-left Nepali Congress party, suggesting opportunism rather than ideology still fueled the country’s political alliances.

To achieve its own ambitions in Nepal, China would prefer consistent and ideological leadership similar to the CCP. To start, a lack of consensus among the various leaders who have come through Kathmandu’s revolving doors has inhibited progress on infrastructure projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Nepal signed on to in 2017. Since the initial agreement, Kathmandu has appeared reluctant to begin work on a single project. Concern about debt remains an obstacle for the ruling coalition led by the Nepali Congress. There is also growing skepticism toward Chinese-funded projects after repeated delays to the opening of the international airport in Pokhara, Nepal.

Such hesitancy prompted Xi to visit Nepal in 2019, but he failed to secure concrete assurances from the government. In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a trip, where he was also unable to convince his counterpart, Narayan Khadka, to agree to a BRI-funded project. In the CCP’s view, the conditions that facilitated the original BRI agreement could solve its problems in Nepal. Nepal’s Maoist, pro-China former prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, initially enlisted Nepal in the BRI before resigning in May 2017. Had the Maoists retained sole control of the government, Nepal might have agreed to more infrastructure projects by now.

For Beijing, continuity of leadership in Kathmandu could also benefit the CCP’s geopolitical standing. Deepening ties between Nepal and China have already led to a strong display of solidarity at the United Nations; in 2021, Nepal joined other South Asian countries in commending China’s approach in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, where it has faced criticism for human rights violations. And any hope of a free Tibet would be quashed if the CCP is able to sandwich the region between two like-minded governments in Beijing and Kathmandu.

Taking lessons from Russia’s recent isolation after its invasion of Ukraine, Xi is also acutely aware of the importance of securing support from allies before he makes any potential decision to invade Taiwan. In 2019, Nepal endorsed the CCP’s position on Taiwan—but that was under the leadership of pro-China former Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. If Beijing manages to push for a united leftist party to take power in Kathmandu, it would both boost economic ties between the countries and consolidate China’s global reputation in the event of a war with Taiwan.


China’s increasing interest in Nepal’s politics has worrying implications for the future of democracy in Kathmandu. The fickle alliances that formed before and after the 2017 election seem to be a feature of Nepali politics. For as long as Nepal has held democratic elections, no party has completed a full five-year term in government, which has eroded public confidence. In this year’s local elections held in May, voter turnout declined compared to the local elections in 2017. Such weaknesses leave the door open for Chinese intervention. The CCP’s attempts to stabilize Nepal’s political landscape could come at the expense of the country’s already fragile democratic institutions.

The CCP’s involvement elsewhere in Nepali public life provides evidence of this. In September 2019, the temporarily unified Nepal Communist Party signed a memorandum with the CCP to increase cooperation between Nepal and China’s departments and agencies, including, most worryingly, the police. The decision invited China’s People’s Armed Police to provide training and support to its counterpart in Nepal. The People’s Armed Police is political by nature: It is required to act on behalf of the CCP’s interests. Any collaboration between China’s police and its Nepali counterpart, therefore, undermines political neutrality—threatening the notion of a free society in Nepal.

The consequences of this still-nascent alliance have already become clear: Nepal’s police has increasingly participated in the repression and deportation of Tibetan refugees and dissidents, aligning with the actions of the People’s Armed Police in China and, by extension, the desires of the CCP. Relatedly, Nepal has stiffened its position on Tibetan refugees and political activists in recent years, mirroring the closer relations among some politicians in Kathmandu and the CCP. The more China is able to dictate policy and policing in Nepal, the harsher life will become for the more than 20,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal.

Because of the division among Nepal’s current political parties, the CCP has pursued other means of exerting influence within Nepal’s borders beyond politics. Soft-power tools have proved invaluable in ensuring the CCP can control the narrative inside Nepal. Its forays into press manipulation can be seen in Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes in Nepal, which offer training for journalists. Nepali government officials have, in turn, discouraged journalists from reporting critically on China, particularly around Tibetan affairs.

The CCP’s exertions of soft power have raised suspicions among Nepalis, including regarding the unexplained death of a journalist. In 2020, Balaram Baniya, a journalist and outspoken critic of Chinese policy in Nepal, died mysteriously. He was suspended from the Kantipur Daily newspaper for breaking a story that China had encroached on Rui village in Nepal, near the border with Tibet. Although no one has been implicated in Baniya’s death, rumors abound about the timing and the pattern of Chinese anger toward Nepal’s free press. A few months earlier, the Chinese Embassy in Nepal publicly condemned the Kathmandu Post for a “regrettable” bias on China-related issues.

Meanwhile, the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok could serve as another platform for soft power. In February, Nepal’s government ratified an agreement to accept a $500 million grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation to spur investments, which could be seen as an alternative to Chinese financing. The project faced significant pushback from communist politicians and triggered nationwide protests that cast the package as an extension of U.S. imperialism. A similar narrative appeared on TikTok, where related videos accumulated nearly 50 million views. Although the CCP didn’t actively push the agenda, TikTok provided a platform for negative coverage. China did not censor the topic as it has done with videos that mention human rights abuses in Xinjiang, for example.

For the United States, contrasting political ideologies should not deter policymakers from trying to engage more effectively with the various communist parties in Nepal. The comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the United States could serve as a model for the U.S.-Nepal relationship. The CCP’s efforts to unify pro-China political parties and shape public life as well as its more covert attempts to influence public opinion could undermine Nepal’s own interests, as shown by the preference for infrastructure projects funded by high-interest BRI loans over U.S.-funded grants.

These developments highlight the grave danger facing Nepal’s democracy ahead of this month’s elections. The CCP will undoubtedly seek to court whichever party or coalition emerges victorious. Another weak alliance could condemn Nepal to more political instability, inviting further intervention from the CCP. And even if a more China-skeptic government emerges, the CCP still wields enough influence over other political leaders, the press, and the police to ensure its interests remain in play.

Marcus Andreopoulos is a senior research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation. He is also a researcher and instructor for the Global Threats Advisory Group with NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.

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