As the Communist Party of China (CPC) pursues its domestic goal of realizing a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by the year 2020 and struggles to advance Beijing’s interests on China’s troubled geopolitical periphery, Western observers have diligently interpreted the Party’s foreign policy intentions through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the bellicose statements of the state-owned newspaper the Global Times, and inflammatory propaganda videos posted on Chinese social media. And yet, even seasoned China hands have often overlooked one of the most authoritative and increasingly transparent channels of CPC influence and power: the CPC Central Committee’s very own International Department (CPC/ID). Outside of the Party Watch weekly intelligence report (published by the authors), few if any English-language publications offer regular coverage of the department’s activities. Partly for this reason, many continue to falsely believe that the CPC/ID is in decline, and that its activities have little substance.
It is true that the department was once reserved for diplomacy with other foreign communist parties; however, over the past two decades, the CPC/ID has re-identified itself as an active and alternative channel to traditional state-to-state diplomacy, and now boasts ties that span the globe and the full political spectrum. Although CPC/ID meetings are often filled with what one American China scholar once described to the authors as “happy talk,” there is still substance to be found on the core issues of the day. In addition to serving as an important conduit for North Korean relations, it is now a crucial vehicle for advancing China’s modernization goals, studying current international conditions, and fostering ties with influential foreigners from every region.
Indeed, the department has been more active than ever in recent years, dispatching and receiving several hundred delegations annually. Department officials have assessed that its activities will continue to expand along with China’s state-to-state relations. The CPC/ID also distinguishes its diplomatic role from that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as being more long-term oriented, more flexible, and especially focused on helping rectify foreigners’ “incorrect ideas” on the Party and country.
Formal duties of the CPC/ID include: maintaining ties with socialist/communist parties worldwide; developing party-to-party relations with non-socialist political parties; facilitating contacts with think tanks, NGOs, and individuals; collecting information on foreign political developments; researching topics related to China’s development; monitoring and liaising with local up-and-coming personalities; exposing CPC cadres (often for the first time) to the outside world through visits abroad; and hosting foreign dignitaries to help them better understand the CPC and China.
Of immediate importance, the CPC/ID has played a crucial role in advancing efforts to strengthen China’s position in problem areas such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, pushing ambitious economic policies such as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) and influencing the next generation of foreign leaders through youth exchanges. A quick examination of CPC/ID activities in July 2016 alone will demonstrate the scope of the department’s role in these important areas.
Regarding the South China Sea, the CPC/ID engaged in at least seven meetings that addressed the topic at the ministerial or vice-ministerial level in July. Meetings sought to garner diplomatic support for Beijing’s assertion that it has the right to ignore the July decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the South China Sea arbitration case, which favored the Philippines over China. CPC/ID claims of foreign support for Beijing’s stance on the topic must be taken with a grain of salt, as there have been instances of Chinese cherry-picking and misrepresentations on the topic before. Nevertheless, as reported by the department:
- On July 8, CPC/ID Minister Song Tao (宋涛) secured the endorsement of Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, deputy head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, that “involved countries” (read: not the U.S.) should resolve maritime disputes through negotiations grounded in international law.
- On July 12, Song received Former Prime Minister of Romania Victor-Viorel Ponta’s statement of personal support for China’s stance on the South China Sea, with Ponta pledging to expose more Europeans to the truth of the dispute.
- On July 19, Song received full support from former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on China’s position on the South China Sea issue.
- On July 19, International Department Vice Minister Liu Hongcai (刘洪才) received support from an Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party-Syria Region delegation on China’s indisputable rights over Taiwan and the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
- On July 19, International Department Vice Minister Xu Lüping (徐绿平) received support from Hagos Ghebrehiwet, head of Economic Affairs of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) of Eritrea, on China’s position on the South China Sea.
- On July 19, International Department Vice Minister Zheng Xiaosong (郑晓松) received support from a Nepali Congress Party delegation led by member Ram Chandra Pokharel on China’s South China Sea stance. The delegation stated that disputes should be resolved by directly involved parties through negotiation and consultation.
- On July 25, Song received support from a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) delegation led by Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif on the “one China policy” and China’s stance on the South China Sea issue.
Regarding China’s economic initiatives abroad, the CPC/ID has engaged in at least five meetings that addressed China’s OBOR and “16+1” frameworks at the ministerial or vice-ministerial level in July. Realizing that OBOR in particular will be no easy task for Beijing, one former Polish ambassador went as far to call the initiative the greatest geostrategic project since at least 1945. OBOR passes through the traditional influence areas of major powers like the United States, Japan, India, Russia, and the EU, raising suspicions that the framework might serve ulterior purposes. While other CPC outlets such as the journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) have rejected these fears as threat theories backed by hostile Western forces, the CPC/ID has sought to bolster state efforts to overcome concerns. The department reports the following meetings and discussions on the topic:
- On July 5, International Department Vice Minister Zhou Li (周力) discussed the “16+1” and OBOR frameworks with Miroslav Lajcak, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.
- On July 7, Zhou met Latvian Ambassador to China Maris Selga and affirmed Latvia’s contributions to the “16+1” cooperative mechanism.
- On July 12, in Song’s meeting with Ponta, the former Romania prime minster voiced support for advancing China-Romania and China-Europe cooperation through the OBOR and “16+1” mechanisms.
- On July 19, International Department Vice Minister Guo Yezhou (郭业洲) met a Nazarbayev Center of Kazakhstan delegation led by Timur Shaimergenov, deputy director of the center. Both sides agreed on the importance of publicizing the benefits of bilateral cooperation in initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the “Bright Road” new economic policy.
- On July 19, International Department Vice Minister Zheng Xiaosong met an Italian Democratic Party youth delegation led by the Young Democrats representative Stefano Albano. The Italian delegation expressed their party’s high regard for China’s 13th Five-Year Plan and initiatives such as OBOR.
Regarding youth exchanges, the CPC/ID engaged in at least five meetings that were either with youth delegations or sought to enhance youth ties with their foreign counterparts at the ministerial or vice-ministerial level in July. Youth exchanges fit into the department’s long-term focus, as it strives to create favorable impressions on and relations with future policymakers by looking past the (often many) issues of the day. The CPC/ID reports the following meetings with young delegations and discussions on youth exchanges:
- On July 8, International Department Minister Song Tao met a Cambodian People’s Party (KPRP) young cadre delegation led by Hun Many, president of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Song emphasized the historically strong foundation of China-Cambodia relations and both sides stressed the need to strengthen party-to-party exchanges among young cadres.
- On July 15, International Department Vice Minister Guo Yezhou met an American and European young scholar delegation in Beijing. Guo emphasized that the CPC attached great importance to exchanges with foreign think tanks and scholars, and both sides expressed the wish to discuss and share views on CPC governance and China’s development path.
- On July 18, International Department Vice Minister Zheng Xiaosong met a European Parliamentary Committee Young Politician delegation led by Vice Chair of the European Parliamentary Committee on Transportation and Tourism István Ujhelyi in Beijing. Both sides spoke of recent positive developments in China-EU relations, emphasizing agreement to promote dialogue and exchanges.
- On July 19, Zheng met an Italian Democratic Party youth delegation led by Young Democrats representative Stefano Albano. Zheng expressed his wish for the delegation to gain a deeper, objective understanding of China and the CPC during its visit.
- On July 25, Song met a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) delegation led by Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, stating his wish to enhance educational exchanges between the two parties’ young cadres.
In sum, it is apparent that the CPC/ID today is an extremely active CPC organ under the direct control of the Central Committee that advances the current geopolitical and foreign policy interests of the Party. The department’s immediate attention is focused on advancing OBOR and securing diplomatic cover for China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan. The CPC Central Committee also continues to utilize the department to further Beijing’s long-term interest of friendly relations with rising foreign politicians and influencers, even if current state-to-state relations are troubled with controversy. Foreign analysts therefore should not overlook the CPC/ID’s activities, and instead should add the department to their watchlist of actors that promote the CPC regime’s influence around the world.
David Gitter is the editor and Great Helmsman of PARTY WATCH, the premier weekly intelligence report on the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.
Leah Fang is a researcher of PARTY WATCH, and a master’s candidate at The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.