Beijing is marshaling all the levers of power that it has to carry out its burgeoning diplomatic initiatives as it seeks a leading role in the Asian region and beyond. The Chinese leadership has not only officially upgraded the Chinese state’s diplomatic apparatus at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress — evidenced through the promotion of State Councilor Yang Jiechi to the CCP Politburo — but it has also coordinated the party’s own set of tools to propagate a vision of global leadership and common development with China center stage.
The CCP has created many benign sounding phrases to encapsulate this vision of greater Chinese influence, which upholds Beijing’s supposedly practice-proven “socialist” development model for developing countries to emulate. The CCP’s vision also promotes the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI) global development framework, which plainly seeks to build a Sinocentric economic order under Beijing’s sway. Since the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, this vision has been further embodied in concepts such as the “new era” where authoritarian regimes stand proudly together with their democratic counterparts in a “community of shared future for mankind,” largely dependent on China’s generous financing and investment into foreign infrastructure projects.
Beijing’s ability to relate its international ambitions through a diversity of channels should be nearly as troubling to U.S. strategists and their allies as the nature of China’s ambitions. At bottom, this ability appears to stem from the strengths of the Chinese political system itself. As a Leninist political party, the CCP was built from its inception to penetrate and influence all aspects of society, including those that are non-communist. Today, it carries this out on a global scale through its powerful bureaucracies devoted to international liaison, united front, and propaganda work — all of which answer to the CCP Central Committee “with Xi Jinping at its core.” Not unlike the daunting task of Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2010 sci-fi film Inception, the party’s ambitious mission is to implant Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” into the dreams of other nations, linking their national aspirations with that of China’s high leadership. The CCP’s arms of influence are targeting foreign societies in ways that have seldom been fully considered by those on the receiving end.
Take, for example, the robustness of the CCP’s very own liaison efforts targeting foreign politicians. On a weekly basis, the CCP’s International Department pushes China’s vision of the future with top political leaders from all over the world, including those from opposition parties. The department is farsighted — it aims to cultivate reserves of foreign influencers that “understand and are friendly to China” in the hopes that they may one day come to power. Since the 19th Party Congress, the CCP’s liaison work comprises an additional channel to propagate the party’s message of a shared, Sinocentric future.
Recently, at the Chinese Communist Party’s World Political Party Dialogue in Beijing, Xi Jinping pressed his guests to develop with China a “new type of political party relations” geared toward integrated development. International Department diplomats held meetings with politicians from the European Union’s European External Action Service, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Republican Party of Armenia, the Communist Party of Portugal, Mauritius’ Militant Socialist Movement, Uzbekistan’s People’s Democratic Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and the Communist Party of Vietnam, just to name a few. At the conclusion of the event, attendees — who reportedly included Tony Parker, treasurer of the U.S. Republican National Committee — signed the “Beijing Initiative of Chinese Communist Party and the World’s Political Parties High-level Dialogue,” which essentially comprises an endorsement of the CCP and all of its foreign initiatives.
Among the most notable points of the “Initiative” are that participants: advocate respect for each country’s development path and values (including for authoritarian ones); call for the abandonment of a “Cold War mentality” (a long-used phrase to criticize those suspicious of Chinese intentions); note that China’s OBOR-related concepts have “entered into people’s hearts day by day”; are pleased to see Xi Jinping Thought’s emphasis on building a community with a shared future for mankind; note that the CCP stands for humanity’s progress; and recognize that the CCP Central Committee with Xi at its core has displayed China’s role as a responsible power. This impressive political coup would have been difficult to achieve through traditional diplomatic channels, to say the least.
The United Front Work Department’s global influence has been a topic of more recent interest and alarm in the West. The department’s importance in uniting foreigners to support China’s rise has increased along with Xi’s emphasis on united front work, bolstered by the creation of a United Front Work Leading Small Group to coordinate activities. Like the CCP’s liaison work, united front organizations abroad operate openly, but their true intentions are often masked from unassuming foreigners. For example, to support the CCP’s narrative that Taiwan is but a province of China, overseas united front organizations advancing the party line on Taiwan often sport the phrase “peaceful reunification” in their name. More broadly speaking, since the 1990s, united front work has sought to rally not only ethnic Chinese abroad but also non-ethnic Chinese foreigners to advance the PRC’s foreign policies, including OBOR. Anne-Marie Brady’s recent report on united front work targeting New Zealand is an exemplar study that other China researchers should look to if they are to grasp the full range of such activities aimed at their home countries.
The CCP’s propaganda system plays a growing role in cultivating a positive image of China and its place in the world. Such efforts are overseen by the CCP Central Office of Foreign Propaganda (OFP), known publicly by its overt State Council title, the State Council Information Office. Its core missions include telling “China’s story to the world,” transmitting CCP policies and views, and countering perceived attacks on China’s core interests, such as its claim over Taiwan. Propagandists spread their messages abroad through print and online publications that target foreign audiences, such as People’s Daily Foreign Edition and China Daily, but also through other mediums such as China Central Television International (now rebranded as China Global Television) and China Radio International (CRI).
China Daily, officially under the control of the OFP, now publishes supplements in foreign newspapers to propagate party-approved messages, and through various other media partnerships, its messaging has been enhanced. Take The Washington Post’s recent publishing of the “China Watch” supplement — prepared by China Daily — as an example; at the time of writing, the supplement featured conspicuous articles praising the CCP, including two titled “Global party leaders think highly of CPC” and “Party-to-party talks for shared future,” both of which praise the party and support its core initiatives abroad such as OBOR.
In sum, the CCP regime has dedicated serious political capital in order to see its vision of the world adopted by foreign governments and societies; toward that end, the CCP itself is playing a pivotal role. Planting the China Dream abroad will still remain a daunting task, given the broad acceptance of norms and values that underwrite the liberal international order that still dominates today. And yet, analyzing the full scope of the CCP-regime’s activities abroad is necessary for those who would wish to counter the illiberal messages that Beijing is propagating, and should provide a new sense of urgency for greater collaboration toward that end.
David Gitter is the director of the Party Watch Initiative, a program of the Project 2049 Institute that analyzes the writings and activities of the Chinese Communist Party.