China's Rise and the Future of the Liberal World Order
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article’s author. The following work does not necessarily represent the views of the Synergy: Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.
China’s Rise and the Future of the Liberal World Order
Imparting the China Model Through African Political Party Training
China’s rapid ascent to “great power” status in recent years has raised concerns about the future of the existing international system, a liberal “rules-based order” forged in the aftermath of World War II that has allowed for seven decades of great power peace, the expansion of democratic rule, and a massive increase in global prosperity. While China has thus far avoided active military conflict and further integrated itself into the world economy, American policymakers worry openly about the “China threat” and the challenge it may pose to the underlying “rules of the road.” In fact, a narrative of ideological competition between the two sides has been gaining traction in Washington, amid fears that China will seek to construct an illiberal alternative order that excludes the United States, an anxiety that did not exist previously in the Sino-US relationship during the Cold War and post-normalization period. These concerns fall upon a wide spectrum, with some analysts predicting that China will resist the “liberal internationalist” characteristics of the existing order, including rules and principles like free trade, liberal democracy, and human rights; that China will oppose the hegemonic position of the US within the global order by seeking greater political influence in various institutions and regimes; or, even more radically, that China may actively subvert the international system as it currently stands.
This attitude has driven US-China policy across multiple administrations. Numerous presidents have called on China to join the prevailing global system, with Former Deputy Secretary of State under Bush, Robert Zoellick, urging Beijing to act as a “responsible stakeholder”, and President Barack Obama expressing his hopes that China would become a “partner in underwriting the international order.” From the American perspective, China is increasingly seen as intent on exporting undemocratic policies and practices, in order to displace the US and its democratic way of life. Such a rising power may attempt to “change the architecture and rules of international governance institutions, or fundamentally alter the underlying principles and norms these institutions enshrine to reflect their own national values or ideology.” From the Chinese perspective, on the other hand, there is now an opportunity for China to step into the leadership vacuum that President Trump is leaving. Where Trump’s administration seems to be ceding leadership and credibility in international issues areas, ranging from climate change to global trade, President Xi is stepping forward to “play the role of global adult.” China has already taken steps to demonstrate its capacity to assume a greater leadership role on the world stage, as exemplified in its creation of new international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
In fact, during his speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi strongly suggested that the Chinese experience poses an alternative “model” for developing countries, alongside the deeply entrenched Washington Consensus. Specifically, he asserted that “the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics continues to develop, thus exploring the path for developing countries to march toward modernization, providing a brand new choice for those countries and nations that wish to accelerate development and maintain their own independence, and contributing Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions for resolving the problems of mankind.” These comments sparked widespread interpretations in the West of Xi’s speech as strongly implying that the “China model” of socialism with Chinese characteristics provided new operations for developing countries. However, Xi later made efforts to clarify that he did not mean to suggest that China intends to export a Chinese model. In a speech at the Communist Party of China (CPC/CCP) in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting in Beijing, Xi stated that the CPC would neither import foreign models of development nor export the Chinese model: “we will not ask other countries to adopt the Chinese practice.” Emphasizing that the CCP seeks to create opportunities for the world through China’s development, the message that Xi conveyed was that China is “willing to share its vision, path, and experience, which have been the key to the Chinese miracle” of lifting 700 million people out of poverty and transforming China into the world’s second largest economy. At the same time, Xi also pledged that no matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion. China has simply paved a way for developing countries to learn from the Chinese experience by forging their own paths to modernization based on national conditions.
Yet despite official efforts by the Chinese leadership to display to the world that it is not a revisionist power that seeks to challenge the United States as a world leader, other sources indicate that there is indeed a Chinese perception of an ideological battle between the US and China. For example, a 2013 notice to local divisional levels from the Central Committee of the CCP’s General Office asserted that “Western anti-China forces and internal ‘dissidents’ are still actively trying to infiltrate China’s ideological sphere and challenge our mainstream ideology.” Warning that the party “clearly sees the ideological situation as a complicated, intense struggle,” the notice instructs party members to be aware of “false ideological trends” such as the promotion of Western ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights as “universal values”, in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the party’s leadership and replace the core values of socialism. Furthermore, a 2011 article in the Qiushi Journal, an organ of the Central Committee of the CCP, gives a very critical evaluation of the Western model of political and economic development, asserting that the international financial crisis of 2008-09 “not only damaged America’s image, but also rattled world confidence in the US political system” and triggered a profound institutional crisis in the West. The article also claims that the blow of the financial crisis had “taken the shine off the Western model of economic, political, and social development” and “ended the dominance of the ‘Washington Consensus’ by highlighting the inherent instability of the capitalist system.” Confirming the perception of tension in the ideological sphere, this piece ends by implying that “the rise of China and other emerging countries is about more than just the emergence of new economic and political powers; it also involves the competition between ideas and models across international borders.”
Some Chinese scholars have also suggested that China should be more active in promoting a Sino-centric international system with “rule by Chinese virtues” (wangdao) instead of “rule by Western coercive force” (badao). The Chinese newspaper People’s Daily has reaffirmed the notion that “the rise of China and other emerging economies have dealt a major blow to Western universal values,” with many countries considering the Chinese model to be a good alternative to Western civilization. Cui Zhuang, a professor at Tsinghua University, also stated in early 2010 that “it is very possible that the Beijing Consensus can replace the Washington Consensus.” Even with these apparent contradictions in the Chinese stance on the existence of an ideological battle between itself and the US, the perception of a competition between the Washington Consensus and so-called “Beijing Consensus” alone poses a real threat to the stability of the Sino-US relationship.
In order to determine whether the narrative of China attempting to subvert the international system and export its own development model holds any truth, I seek to identify and analyse the facets in which China may actually be challenging the existing rules-based order, as well as the extent to which these efforts are effective. I will answer these questions by focusing my analysis on the motivations and messaging behind China’s interactions with African officials on the economic and political level. More specifically, I seek to evaluate whether China is indeed marketing its own development model and promoting illiberal values through conducting political party training programs for African officials. Because successful economic development in Africa would legitimize Communist rule, the China model could provide a viable alternative to Western democratic systems. I will examine programs in political and economic development that China runs in three African nations – Ethiopia, South Africa, and South Sudan – in order to analyse to what degree Chinese activity in Africa denigrates alternatives. Are the Chinese offering various potential models, or asserting that the Chinese model is the best and only option? How are they framing their model? By testing the effects of Chinese influence via political party training programs on the development pathways that African nations adopt, I will ultimately speculate on the implications of the promotion of the China model for the stability of the Sino-US relationship.
The Scholarship on the “China Threat” to the Existing Liberal Order
When discussing the perception of an ideological challenge by China, much of the scholarly work in this field focuses on the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as potentially constituting a direct threat to the existing liberal order. But what constitutes the “existing liberal order” exactly, and in what ways could China’s rise from a weak and peripheral position in the world economy to the status of a global power pose a threat to the international system?
A critical ideological component of the liberal order is the Washington Consensus, a political theory and system of beliefs that the United States vehemently seeks to protect. Since the end of the Cold War, democratic liberalism has been the dominant model for national development and international affairs. According to Barma and Ratner, the “economic menu” of free trade and structural adjustment provided by the Washington Consensus, including marketization, privatization, and deregulation, became dominant in the 1980s. This system also “combined free-market economics with a set of liberal policy prescriptions regarding human rights, civil liberties, the promotion of democracy, and other political freedoms.” Many scholars and political elites alike have concluded that the natural trajectory for all countries would be to follow along the modernization path of democratic liberalism. President Bush frequently spoke of a “new world order”, while Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history,” notions that were affirmed by the fact that the Washington Consensus seemed to have proven to be the most effective and even only mechanism to achieve peaceful development.
However, Ratner and Barma point out that developing nations are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Washington Consensus, after failing to benefit from the world’s economic growth as promised. The rise of China presents the West, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a formidable ideological challenge to that paradigm. The “China model” powerfully combines two components: illiberal capitalism and illiberal sovereignty. Illiberal capitalism consists of the “ability to achieve economic growth and poverty reduction without causing significant fissures in authoritarian control,” while illiberal sovereignty can be conceived of as “foreign policy predicated on principles of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention” that rejects the liberal proposition that the international community should have a say in the practices of national government. Kurlantzick conceptualizes this model as “shorthand for economic liberalization without political liberalization,” in which Beijing has “opened its economy to some extent, but it also ensures the government controls strategic industries, picks corporate winners, determines investments by state funds, and pushes the banking sector to support national champion firms.” Joshua Ramo coined the term “Beijing Consensus” in 2004. Yet, China has remained reluctant to equate its development model with the Washington Consensus, maintaining that there are no basic tenets of the China model that assume universal application, as is the case with the Washington Consensus.
Along with its growing wealth and power, China today is also rapidly expanding its military capabilities and projecting power and influence as its interests expand outward, prompting the nation to pursue a more expansive diplomatic agenda and build partnerships with countries across the world. China thus appears to be following in the footsteps of rising powers of the past. However, Ikenberry and Lim point out that more so than past ascending great powers, China is rising up and encountering an existing, distinctive international order that is highly institutionalized. Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper expand on what constitutes this existing order, asserting that it is a “rules-based order because it elevates standards above a might-makes-right doctrine; it is open, because any nation-state that wishes to follow those standards can join its ranks; and it is liberal, because it is weighted toward protection of free-market capitalism and liberal political values.” However, Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper also illustrate that the term “international order” is shorthand and confusing. There is not a single order that states decide to join or oppose, but rather it is a system dense with different components and layers of political, economic, and security treaties, multilateral institutions, and function organizations. This includes global multilateral institutions like the UN, WTO, and the Bretton Woods regime; regional institutions like the Asian Development Bank; and networks of treaties and regimes ranging from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This complex system was built on numerous levels for a variety of purposes over many years, with states choosing to be “in” some parts of the order while staying out of or opposing other parts of it.
Washington, however, tends to utilize a more simplified conception of the existing global order in its China policy. Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper provide a criticism of the US stance on China, arguing that the US’ China policy is wrongly grounded in assumptions that “there exists one more-or-less unified liberal international order” and that “if China is brought into this liberal order, the underlying rules and institutions will shape Beijing more than they will be shaped by it.” The issue with these propositions is that they simplify both the nature of the world order and China’s role within it. Similarly, Ikenberry and Lim assert that the complexity and multi-layered nature of the international order “means that states – such as China – will not pursue a blanket approach to the existing international order, but will find themselves supporting and participating in some areas, while opposing and working around other areas.” While the historical narrative of power transition theory predicts that emerging great powers like China will rise up and contest the terms of the international order and the position of the incumbent dominant or status quo power (such as the United States), China’s decision to support the prevailing system is in reality not a binary one. It did not have a seat at the table in the founding of many existing global rules and institutions that were established prior to China’s entry into the global system, yet has since joined many of the world’s international organizations and even shapes the underlying rules as a founding member of organizations like the UN, IMF, and World Bank. As a result, there is no single answer to the question of whether China will fully accept the existing rules-based order.
The Spectrum of Institutional Choices Facing Rising States
While the deep institutionalization of “liberal internationalism” in the global system makes it difficult to overturn them outright, China enjoys a spectrum of strategic options regarding how to interact with the global order and approach individual institutions within the system. Firstly, a rising state can join a given international institution as a regular member by being what Ikenberry and Lim coin a “status-quo stakeholder” state that accepts the existing rules and norms of the regime. Where China’s interests are broadly consistent with international rules and structures, Ikenberry and Lim expect that “participation that is broadly system-respecting.” In fact, China does support many of the major global institutions and regimes, from the UN system and WTO to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, as well as various bilateral agreements on greenhouse gas emissions. This strategy particularly makes sense for China in the economic sphere, as the foundational elements of the current international system have served China very well by facilitating its growth into the second largest economy in the world, and are therefore worth preserving as they continue to serve China’s interests.
Another alternative is to join an institution but seek to renegotiate the terms of authority and influence within it. In this case, the rising state would become what Ikenberry and Lim classify as an “authority-seeking stakeholder” that aims to gain “greater voice and influence in the formal processes of the institution via enhanced voting rights and/or greater national representation.” Reform of the institution from within might entail the redistribution of decision-making authority, or facilitation of greater influence over the operations of the organization while still respecting the fundamental purpose of the institution. This kind of strategy is exemplified in China’s push for greater voting shares in the International Monetary Fund. Additionally, a third option for the rising state is to operate inside the institution as a formal member, in order to alter, impede, or contain the pursuit of undesirable institutional rules, practices, and norms in areas at odds with the rising state’s own interests. This choice might entail attempting to “prevent the institution from performing tasks that support or reinforce liberal-oriented characteristics of the prevailing international order;” such as a propensity to work from inside to contain the crystallization or application of emerging rules, practices, and norms is referred to as “institutional obstruction.” In practice, this strategy may manifest itself as the rising power using its authority to limit the operational meaning and application of specific rules and norms within the institution, as seen through China’s activity in the human rights sphere. While China has accepted the existence of the Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P) doctrine, it has also quietly worked within the UNSC to limit its definition and usage.
Finally, a rising state like China also has comparatively more radical choices at its disposal to challenge the existing world order. For example, outright opposition to or non-participation within an existing institutional framework is yet another option, in which China may “prefer to operate outside of – and in violation of – the established system of rules, practices, and norms” but may have no interest in leading an alternative order. This kind of behaviour can be seen in Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the maritime domain, in particular with regards to its construction activities in the South China Sea and its dismissal of international legal pronouncements on the issue. Considered by some Western analysts to be the most threatening possibility, China could also create a new international institution or regime, as China did with the launch of the AIIB in 2015. This strategy of “external innovation” can serve multiple strategic objectives on its own. For instance, new institutions can “offer an alternative node of interstate cooperation” in competition with existing institutions and serve as a “new instrument of statecraft through which the rising power uses its authority to build bilateral or multilateral influence.” In the eyes of American policymakers, new institutions pose the gravest threat to the existing order by offering a channel through which China could challenge and potentially replace the authority and leadership of the US as the dominant state, as well as the prevailing rules and norms within the international system. Such a challenge is the most direct form of what Ikenberry and Lim term “counter-hegemonic institutional statecraft.”
The Establishment of the AIIB: A Direct Challenge?
The establishment of the AIIB is a prime example of this last “external innovation” strategy. Numerous scholars have questioned China’s motives behind setting up the institution. Does China simply want reform in international institutions that it did not play a part in setting up, or it is trying to serve its own strategic objectives? Does China merely want a more multipolar international system, or is the AIIB the first step in its long-term strategy to replace the US as a major power?
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a multilateral development bank first proposed by Chinese President Xi JinPing in 2013, with 21 countries signing an initial memorandum of understanding in October 2014. By the time of the AIIB’s official launch and the release of its Articles of Agreement in June 2015, 57 countries had signed on, including a number of non-Asian states such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Brazil. The United States and Japan, however, have to date declined to join. Chinese officials insist that the AIIB is intended to complement rather than compete with or upend the existing multilateral institutions providing development financing in the region, namely the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Jin Liqun, the founding president of the AIIB, has asserted that the AIIB provides “the opportunity to build from scratch a better development bank,” recognizing “vast room for cooperation” with existing multilateral development banks. Official sources consistently affirm that the AIIB was established in the hopes of offering a regional alternative to the multilateral institutions of the Bretton Woods system, which left Asia largely underrepresented. More specifically, Liao asserts that the AIIB was born out of two main grievances about the World Bank and the IMF, shared by China and less developed nations alike. The first is the disproportionally low voting influences for developing countries. As the economies of these countries have grown over the last 30 years, the voting powers held by developing countries within both the World Bank and the IMF have remained flat.  Secondly, the conditionality of the loans provided by Bretton Woods institutions is based on neoliberal, free market policies that have not resulted in better economic outcomes over the long-term. Liao points out that IMF bailouts and the forced opening of financial markets in developing countries have often caused unemployment to skyrocket and real wages to stagnate due to inflation. Economies in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and the Latin American region have also become vulnerable to speculation as a result. 
In the face of the World Bank and IMF’s seeming inability to enact substantial reform to better accommodate local conditions and increase the voting power of developing countries, the AIIB may provide the solution to this issue. The bank’s regional nature, for instance, ensures that Asian nations will be the predominant voice of the organization. According to Liao, the bank’s charter also “mandates that 70 percent of its capital must come from within Asia, ensuring that China will remain the largest stakeholder. Beijing will therefore retain veto power over all major decisions…but China’s influence will be checked by the equal percentage of voting rights given to founding members.” The AIIB therefore serves as an experiment for China’s own version of multi-polarity, in which Beijing “remains firmly in control of the organization, but does not mind giving a greater voice to its neighbors – as long as it still profits.” Other key differences between the AIIB and the Bretton Woods institutions include that the latter offers loans for a variety of purposes including both infrastructure construction and projects that target health, education, and the environment; while the AIIB focuses on building infrastructure that enhances connectivity between economies. Most notably, Western aid and development efforts are “geared towards spreading liberal democracy and their own institutional frameworks, while China has stuck to its policy of distancing itself from the domestic affairs of other nations.” In fact, the AIIB has vowed that politics should not enter into the discussion about whether and under what circumstances a development project is worth pursuing. The AIIB’s Articles of Agreement, although similar in its operating guidelines to banks within the Bretton Woods framework, specifically bars members from influencing political affairs.
China credits its transformation into one of the fastest growing developing nations in the post-WWII era to its firm rejection of neoliberal free-market orthodoxy, asserting that its path may serve as a guide for other emerging countries to achieve the same levels of economic growth. However, the AIIB may shift the way lending is conducted internationally. It seems that “political persuasion” by dominant countries may no longer have a place in development lending, with the AIIB demonstrating that major economies are open to the idea of judging a borrower on pure economic, rather than political, considerations. Indeed, “in this new era, the Bretton Woods system cannot continue its promulgation of liberal democracy, free markets, and Western governance institutions if it wants to effectively head the economic world order.” Liao seems to argue that by replacing ideology with a bank that prides itself on “Asia-centric political agnosticism,” the AIIB can slowly uproot and outdo the Bretton Woods lending institutions that have a history of putting politics ahead of development. Does the AIIB truly represent what Ikenberry and Lim refer to as a “potential vanguard for an alternative economic world order”? Should the AIIB be considered a real threat to the existing liberal order?
From the perspective of the US, the AIIB may build pressure for changes to the rules, practices, and norms of development finance that are at odds with the standards developed within the Bretton Woods framework. Ikenberry and Lim point out that “were the AIIB to provide equivalent financing but subject to more permissive standards, it could constitute an alternative for those governments seeking to avoid the strict requirements of the Bretton Woods framework.” For example, the AIIB could offer loans with fewer strings attached than those of the IMF, or be more lenient in terms of standards for transparency and accountability. Furthermore, the AIIB could also alter the institutional balance of power away from Washington, if institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank decline in importance. As Schweller and Pu argue, “because balancing under uni-polarity is definitionally revisionist, power transitions must be preceded by both the ‘de-concentration’ of hegemonic power and ‘de-legitimation’ of the old order.” Now endowed with primary leadership over a major institutional player in the development realm, China could pose real doubts in the international community about whether the US-created system is best able to meet the needs of states, or whether a “Beijing consensus” or Chinese model of international political economy could perform better. Similarly, Fukuyama asserts that “the more China is able to build and successfully operate alternative international institutions, the further it will tilt the balance of authority away from the United States, and the more legitimate Chinese leadership will appear.”
Exploring the possibility of the AIIB as counter-hegemonic, Ikenberry and Lim suggest that the AIIB could even represent an early step in a longer-term strategy in which China “seeks to weaken and delegitimize the order’s basic foundations and tenets, while offering a competitive alternative—a new order founded upon principles more accommodating to China’s values and interests.” This nascent institution provides Beijing with a platform to demonstrate that it has the capacity to build and sustain an order exhibiting “non-Western” characteristics. The creation and leadership of the AIIB also demonstrates China’s willingness to “bear the costs of providing international public goods,” which can help China build a reputation as a “responsible rising power that is actively building and supporting a stable and prosperous global system.” The legitimacy of the system of rules embodied in this new multilateral institution will only continue to expand as more countries, particularly Western industrialized democracies, become members, thereby enhancing China’s credibility as a system leader.
However, early evidence suggests that these concerns may be overblown, and that China actually faces significant constraints in utilizing the AIIB as an instrument of “counter-hegemonic statecraft.” One such constraint is multilateralism. The AIIB’s broad base of member states from European and Middle Eastern countries elevates its reputation and legitimacy. This means that the AIIB’s decision-making and operations cannot deviate far from the preferences of Western member states, who have indicated that they intend to “preserve best practices” and are “broadly supportive of the existing rules, practices, and norms surrounding multilateral development financing.” Multilateralism therefore serves as both a source of legitimacy and constraint, requiring China to sacrifice formal authority and rendering it unable to exert unilateral control over the institution. It must also be questioned whether China even wants fundamental change of the international order, given that it has benefitted so tremendously and risen so successfully within the status quo. While Beijing may wish to retain a strong sense of autonomy and flexibility in policy settings, Ikenberry and Lim assert that it is in the rising state’s overall interests to work within the present system, rather than attempt to radically upend or replace it. It is, after all, the very system that facilitated China’s economic miracle. The opportunity cost of conflict will also become too great, as China becomes increasingly interconnected with the global economy. Moreover, displacing the status quo with an equally comprehensive order would be extremely difficult to do. A hypothetical “Beijing consensus” that offers an alternative model of political and economic organization “would need to achieve multiple successes simultaneously to ‘out-compete’ liberal internationalism.”
Early evidence of the AIIB’s operations demonstrates that it broadly supports the existing order, suggesting that these constraints on counter-hegemonic institutional statecraft are effective. According to Ikenberry and Lim, the AIIB looks very similar to the ADB and the World Bank in both its formal design and initial operations, likely due to pressure from Western member states. This leads analysts to believe that “the net impact of the AIIB is therefore more likely to be a strengthening of the rules, practices, and norms within this policy domain, even if the formal authority of the United States is somewhat diluted.” Moreover, Fontaine and Rapp-Hooper point out that there is a difference between Chinese attempts to erode existing international rules (and America’s dominant role in setting them) and a move towards wholesale replacement, insisting that “new regimes and organizations do not automatically lead to the erosion of the prevailing order.” It is possible that China’s leadership of a new rules-bound multilateral institution like the AIIB may be in accordance with the US’ goals of maintaining the existing order.
Most scholars ultimately conclude that the establishment of the AIIB does not pose a substantial threat to the international system, However, I assert that the logic surrounding arguments about what constitutes an ideological challenge is flawed and incomplete. Such arguments only consider the possible existence of direct threats to the US’ hegemonic position. While an illiberal alternative to the international system via the AIIB seems unlikely, perhaps an indirect undermining of the existing liberal order poses a more serious threat – such as a covert ideological push by China in developing countries through conducting party-to-party exchanges and political party training programs in Africa. To date, scholars have almost exclusively considered evidence of formal challenges to the Washington Consensus, such as the establishment of new multilateral institutions. Yet, there remains a gap in the research on political party training programs that China operates for African officials and the effects they may have on the political development and subsequent ideological leanings of those nations.
I therefore suggest that the real threat China poses to the existing order is an indirect, subtle shift in ideology over time, moving away from the Washington Consensus in the developing world by introducing the “China model” as an alternative model of development in Africa. Rather than formally signaling its intention to challenge the existing order or openly export its own ideology with new multilateral institutions, China is strategically utilizing more informal channels such as interactions with officials from developing countries, in order to acquaint them with the China model of development and its viability for success over time, thereby improving the chances that African nations and future leaders will look favorably upon China and begin to adopt certain aspects and practices of the Chinese experience. I also assert that the “China model” narrative is more likely to be seen as an ideological threat by the US through the lens of political party training programs than the establishment of the AIIB, making this analysis more consequential for the future of the Sino-US relationship.
In this paper, I seek to determine the extent to which Chinese political party training programs in Africa denigrate alternative models of development and promote the so-called China model. In order to measure this potential ideological push, I will analyse statements by African leaders and interviews of these officials, with regards to the content of political party training programs conducted by China and lessons learned from these courses. This will ideally provide a more objective account of the training programs, because African officials do not have a vested interest in the promotion of an alternative development model. While on the other hand, Chinese official sources, biased to frame their behaviour in a non-threatening manner, continually insist that they are not attempting to export their model but merely share experiences with other developing countries. Although the political party training programs are conducted by the CCP’s Central Party School, statistics on these operations are not easily accessible, and thus documents on these seminars and meetings released from the African side depict the clearest picture of these training programs. Additionally, I will use media coverage of the memorandums of understanding signed between China and various African nations, as well as Chinese news articles about training forums, to evaluate how these interactions are framed within China for comparison.
One possible motivation for China to conduct training courses in political and economic development for African officials is grounded in status motivations. Jonathan Renshon asserts that “leaders and publics worry about their own as well as their state’s credibility, about the defense of national honor, and about the country’s status,” with Tang (2005) referring to this obsession of policy elites as the “cult of reputation.” According to this theory, China may sense a difference between the status that has been attributed to it by the international community and the status that is actually “deserved.” Desiring to enhance its perceived status globally, China sees that there is a window of opportunity to take over America’s place in global leadership and therefore market the China model as a viable alternative to the Washington Consensus to other developing countries. Another explanation could be that the Communist Party of China (CCP) has a genuinely different ideological perspective on development, and ideology is driving Chinese activity in Africa, in part to legitimize China’s own domestic development choices. In the first case, status is relative. Therefore, I would expect to see China framing the China model as the superior development model in the political and economic programs it conducts in Africa, while denigrating the Washington Consensus. In the second case, the CCP would likely present its own model without criticizing other potential options for development.
Alternatively, China may recognize that it is against its economic interests to directly challenge US primacy and subvert the existing international order by presenting the China model as the better option for developing countries. In accordance with liberal economic interdependence theory, states have a vested interest in cooperation because it leads to net gains. China has focused on developing global and regional economic interdependence to further its growth, utilizing numerous institutions including the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and ASEAN. China may be sharing its development experiences in Africa simply because it is interested in increasing its participation and influence in the international order and creating a more multipolar system, rather than dethroning the US as a global hegemon. In this case, we should see China offering multiple alternatives for development in its political activities in Africa, rather than solely promoting the China model, and/or refraining from casting aside or sharply criticizing Western models of political and economic development.
I will test these hypotheses by analyzing statements by African officials, specifically to examine the extent to which they are presented with a variety of suggestions or options for development, or whether Chinese officials have influenced them to exclusively adopt various practices and principles of the China model. Specifically, I use Ethiopia, South Africa, and South Sudan as case studies to explore their specific interactions with the Chinese government and the subsequent influence on their political and economic development. After this analysis of the framing of the China model, I will ultimately measure the effectiveness of these ideological efforts by looking at the influence of Chinese political and economic involvement in Africa on younger generations of African leaders, as well as the extent to which the China model is viewed favorably in these developing countries in comparison to Western models of development via opinion polls conducted in African nations. This speculation on the implications of China’s promotion of its development model will allow me to comment on the significance of a perceived ideological competition on the Sino-US relationship.
My findings ultimately do not forecast the emergence of a Cold War-style global ideological conflict between the United States and China. The China model may not be a single mature, comprehensive ideology that China is pushing or exporting. However, I assert that China does seek to promote the Chinese experience in governance and development and push China’s ideological agenda in African countries by using more covert channels of party-to-party exchanges and political party training programs. In fact, China recognizes that it cannot yet pose a serious challenge to the US, especially on a military basis, or replace it as a global power. Nor does China have an interest in that objective at present. But Beijing’s leaders realize that they can compete in other ways, slowly challenging the United States by developing a strategy of amassing soft power in the developing world. As countries “learn and begin to adopt aspects of the Chinese experience in political and economic governance, they will become more likely to align with China, to share China’s values, and to connect with China’s leaders” in the future. Moreover, the China model may provide an alternative for African countries tired of American models that have not proven useful, presenting an opportunity to chart out their own routes to economic prosperity and formulate policies based on national conditions. China is therefore taking an alternative path to state-to-state relationships, exploiting party-to-party channels in order to give itself a strategic advantage over Western powers in the ideological sphere.
A History of China’s Engagement in Africa
China’s interest in Africa traces back several decades, with its foreign policy towards the region evolving over time. From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, the PRC cooperated with various African countries and revolutionary groups by supporting national liberation movements, providing economic assistance through loans and grants, and seeking African support for China’s membership in international organizations. Shinn and Eisenman assert that it was during this period that China announced the “Eight Principles on Economic and Technical Aid” in 1964, which included the provision that the Chinese government would “never ask for any privileges or attach any conditions” in its relations with African nations. China-Africa political party exchanges also began in the 1950s. At the time, the CCP only established formal party-to-party relations with other communist parties, but many national liberation organizations from African countries sent delegations to China “to seek the political, moral, and material support of the new China or to experience its political and military training.” However, Shinn and Eisenman note that a large shift in China’s policy towards Africa occurred in and after the 1980s, when Beijing took control of China’s seat at the United Nations, opened diplomatic exchange with Washington in 1972, and witnessed the weakening and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. These changes “freed China’s policymakers from the Cold War’s most pressing political and military stresses, thus permitting China to interact openly with all African states and groups, regardless of ideological leanings.” By 1988, more than 40 political parties in sub-Saharan Africa had established inter-party relations with the CCP.
The “reform and opening up” period that China initiated in the 1980s also shaped China into the economic superpower that it is today, transforming the geostrategic importance of African states to China. According to Shinn and Eisenman, Africa “became a growing market for China’s products and other business ventures, a region for Chinese private and state investments, a source of energy and other commodities for China’s industries, and allies in China’s efforts to craft a more favorable global environment and institutions.” While in the early 1990s, the wave of “multi-party democracy” in Africa had a negative impact on inter-party relations between China and Africa, the stabilization of the political situation in African countries in recent decades has sparked a newfound desire in African political parties (and especially ruling parties) to conduct exchanges with the CCP. The CCP has successively established inter-party relations with a number of new parties, maintaining relations with 81 political parties in Africa at present.
Political Party Training Programs: An Ideological Push?
Some scholars argue that China is actively promoting its model of political and economic development in Africa through its engagement with African political parties, which constitute a key component of Chinese foreign policy towards Africa. Each year, China sponsors the training of thousands of African personnel in areas ranging from diplomacy, economic management, national defence, and agriculture to policing, judicial practice, grassroots organization, and mobilization. According to the Chinese Communist Party, the goal of these political party training programs is to “educate fraternal African political parties on China’s experience in economic development and political governance.” Managed by the Central Party School of the CCP, the programs almost universally include the following components: lectures at a Chinese education or training institution in ideology and party building, field trips to a local government for first-hand experience and meetings with grassroots officials, cultural programs to familiarize participants with traditional Chinese culture, and the mentoring of African political leaders and deployment of Chinese party officials to the African continent to serve as political advisors. Only the most senior-level training programs take place in Beijing, while the more common programs for mid to low-level African officials are placed in other local Chinese cities.
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the courses that the CCP offer are highly technical, including hands-on training on how to establish organizational structures, ideological work, propaganda systems, censorship tactics, and party administration. According to Shinn and Eisenman, the CCP’s domestic cadre training system consists of the Central Party School, the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, three executive leadership academies, and the senior managers training school in Dalian. Beijing seeks to educate African party officials through political cadre training sessions on diverse topics ranging from internal party governance to former CPC Chairman Jiang Zemin’s theory of the “Three Represents.” From 1998 to 2006, the CPC brought party officials from more than ten African governing parties to China for political training, with senior CPC cadres and specialists in areas such as party structure teaching two-week training programs that encouraged African political parties to coordinate their international policies with the CPC. According to Li Chengwen, China’s ambassador to Sudan, CPC cadre training courses can contain about 20 participants from one or several African countries. Furthermore, cadre training programs are conducted only at the request of African political parties themselves, who must submit information about their specific needs. However, the CCP does naturally seek to partner with “like-minded” African parties, using cadre training and party management courses to “develop interpersonal ties and influence future generations of African political leaders.” Notably, China’s engagement with African political parties includes an element of opposition outreach as well. David Shambaugh asserts that “by maintaining ties with non-ruling parties, the CPC has been able to keep track of domestic politics in various nations and to establish contacts with a wide range of politicians and experts who subsequently staff governments after they come to power.” For example, China provides training to the Communist Party of South Africa, as well as the ANC, with Xinhua reporting that Party Secretary General Blade Nzimande led a senior cadre training delegation to China in September 2013 to study issues of “socialist theories and practices.” China clearly pays close attention to the African political landscape and crafts its strategy accordingly.
While exact statistics from the CCP itself are not easy to come by, available data suggests that in recent years, these political party training programs have expanded in both volume and profile. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies reports that the ruling parties of Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are all major training partners of the Central Party School, with South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) alone having sent four groups of 56 members from its top organs for training between 2008 and 2012. The CCP also channels special attention and resources for training of the younger generation of African elites, specifically officials under the age of 40 who hold positions of directorship or equivalent in their governments. Lily Kuo argues that China’s political outreach campaign achieves several goals at once, helping to solidify political and business ties with China’s partners on the continent, to build capacity in African countries, and to cultivate partners who are “likely to be more sympathetic to China and its way of doing things.”
Chinese Efforts to Frame Africa Engagement
Chinese officials are quick to state that the training courses are not an attempt to “remake Africa in its own image,” using its self-avowed policy of “non-interference” in the political affairs of other countries to emphasize that China does not tell its partners what to do. Zhang Yi, China’s economic attaché in South Sudan, has affirmed this sentiment by stating that “we’re not saying the Chinese model should be copied but to share lessons. It’s to give them the concepts so that they can adapt and find their own solutions.” Indeed, the CCP has noticeably framed the political party training programs as “exchanges of experiences”, rather than an imposition of the China model on African countries. Beijing’s engagement on the continent is intended to be perceived as enhancing cooperation and strategic partnerships between China and Africa. Sun asserts that while China invites African political party cadres to China to “study the Chinese way of governance on issues they are interested in, whether they eventually adopt the Chinese way is purely at their own discretion.” In other words, China actively pushes African political party members to personally experience China’s economic success and systematically train them to pursue this path. Furthermore, China explicitly advertises the training programs as a “kind-hearted diplomatic gesture,” using terms such as “equality”, “all-around cooperation” and “mutual gain or respect” in its state media reports and program descriptions. The China Daily describes bilateral knowledge-sharing as “continuously moving in a two-way direction,” with the CCP attaching great importance to studying the ruling experiences of some of the major governing parties in Africa as well.
However, evidence from countries outside of Africa that have received Chinese training in political and economic development reveals that despite efforts to frame China’s engagement in developing countries in a non-threatening manner, the content of such courses reveals ideological motives. One Vietnamese official, having attended such courses for several years, asserts that the ever-increasing confidence of the CCP since the late 2000s has motivated Beijing to shift the focus of its courses to explicit elements of the China model, touching upon topics ranging from “the way Beijing uses its power to allocate loans and grants to certain companies, to China’s strategies for co-opting entrepreneurs into the Communist Party, to China’s use of special economic zones to attract foreign investment over the past thirty years.” Additionally, Central Asian attendees at Chinese training sessions noted how they “increasingly learned about the Chinese judicial system, in which the party has almost complete control, and then returned to their home countries, where their governments used similar types of control measures over their judiciaries.” Does the experience of African political parties experience the same subtle suggestion of an ideological push by China?
Ethiopia, South Africa, and South Sudan as Case Studies
In order to determine whether China is teaching ideology, offering opinions, or simply sharing experiences through its engagement in Africa, I identified specific cases of political party training programs conducted in South Africa, Ethiopia, and South Sudan and analysed the perceptions of African officials with regards to the promotion of a China model. Because of the ambiguity and lack of easily accessible data on these trainings from the Chinese side, I found that official statements from African leaders could reveal more about the content of the programs, as well as the influence they had on the political and economic development of the continent.
Ethiopia has been one of the most eager students of China’s development and government experience. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), first sent a senior delegation to Beijing in 1994 for “China’s advice on Ethiopia’s development,” becoming increasingly insistent on studying China’s development experiences and combining them with Ethiopia’s local conditions after being convinced that China’s model was successful and one to be emulated. Since then, senior EPRDF training delegations have been dispatched to Beijing regularly for courses in a variety of fields. A June 2011 delegation focused on poverty alleviation, an August 2013 session on cadre management, and a February 2016 training program on domestic development and managing youth.
China’s training and exchanges have also contributed significantly to EPRDF’s political development and capacity-building, with Sun asserting that EPRDF’s cadre training system has “learned and imitated many aspects of CCP’s setups.” In fact, the structure of Ethiopia’s ruling party seems to be largely modeled after the CCP. For example, Ethiopia’s Central Party School and party cadre education system owes its success to a 2011 training program by the Central Party School in Beijing, where Chinese officials taught Ethiopian party cadres how to manage their own organizational structure, ideological work, propaganda system, cadre education, and relations between central and local governments within the party. According to Cai, the formation of Ethiopia’s ruling party also shares similarities with that of the CCP, in that “the core of its power is the Executive Committee, equivalent to the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.” Furthermore, the ruling party also features a Central Committee composed of 180 members, which is equivalent to the CPC Central Committee. Therefore, it seems that China’s influence on the ruling party has molded the EPRDF in the CCP’s own image.
In fact, many Chinese individuals who have traveled to Ethiopia commented that “this country is very much like China thirty years ago.” Ethiopia shares a similar history to Mao’s China, notably in comparison with the Four Cleanups Campaign and the Great Leap Forward. In the 1970s, the Ethiopian leader Mengistu seized power and carried out the “Red Terror”, a bloody campaign that crushed his political enemies as well as civilians in an effort to overthrow all opposition forces. Much like Mao, he sought to transform Ethiopia into a command state led by a disciplined and loyal party that would control all organs of authority, mandate the abolishment of all private ownership, and declare that all banks, businesses, enterprises, and rural lands should be nationalized. Falling to the same fate as China’s Great Leap Forward, farmers failed to generate high yields from the land reform, and famine ensued. Fan Ta-Hong, a scholar at the Ethiopia National Academy of Administration, commented that “this history proves that at that time, socialism did not suit us…We should look for a path of development suited to our national conditions”, much like what the China model offers. Emphasis on historical similarities between the CCP and African political parties therefore appear to play a critical role in the attraction of the China model.
In an interview with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Global Policy Center, researcher Tang Xiaoyang elaborated on the perceived similarities between the EPRDF and the CCP, explaining Ethiopia’s rationale for following in Beijing’s footsteps. He asserted that Ethiopia is “seriously studying China’s experience and following its model of centralization and gradual economic reform. The former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who can be described as Deng Xiaoping’s figure, is very similar to China’s reforms in the market economy in the seventies and eighties of the last century, and has even formulated a five-year plan.” He added that rather than establishing a multi-party system or democratic elections like other African countries, Ethiopia chose to establish a strong, efficient central government to promote order and effectively implement policies, much like the CCP. It is this similar path of development that Ethiopia seeks to follow: “这些均与中国的历史和现代发展有接近性，学习也顺理成章.” (All of these factors closely resemble China’s historical and modern developments, so learning from China is quite logical.)
Given the similar non-democratic nature of their domestic politics, the EPRDF and the shared numerous valuable lessons, including how to manage the media, public opinion, and criticism or opposition to the party. In a training program in 2015, a senior study group from the EPRDF was educated on “how the Chinese government monitors, guides, and manages public opinion, including the organizational set up, technologies used, legislation passed, and relations with media.” Chinese scholars and media regard Ethiopia as the biggest success of the China model in Africa, an achievement best seen through the economic development policies it adopted. Cai argues that Ethiopia has incorporated almost all aspects of the “China model” in its strategy of economic development: “除了执政方面的“共同语言”，经济发展上，埃塞俄比亚几乎全盘照搬“中国模式.” More specifically, rapid, Chinese-style development has become the country’s “life-saving path to escape poverty”. Ethiopia’s focus on foreign investment, special economic zones, and infrastructure development is often attributed to Chinese inspiration. Driven by external investment, Cai reports that Ethiopia has enjoyed an average annual economic growth rate of over 10% since 2004, making it one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. Furthermore, a total of 415 Chinese companies invested in Ethiopia between 1998 to 2012, which means that Chinese contracted projects in Ethiopia amounts to more than 9 billion US dollars. Again modeled after China’s policies, Ethiopia has carried out five-years plans with the intention to accelerate and sustain economic development since 2005.
Although rapid development and the restructuring of the economy have begun to result in high inflation and inequality, the Ethiopian government has signaled its belief that political stability justifies the repercussions. At the BRICS summit in March 2013, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam stated that for the time being, “what path to take” did not seem to be the primary consideration for the government. Above all, securing a path out of poverty was the most important objective, a goal that Western models of development have failed to deliver in the past, but that the China model may be able to fulfill. The West has given us money for elections, but only China has provided us with the funds to build roads, and we need to build roads. “对于现在的埃塞而言，“走什么道路”似乎并不是他们考虑的问题，毕竟，从贫困中走出来，才是最重要的事。西方人给我们钱选举，只有中国人给我们钱修路，而我们需要修路.”  In response to the possibility of the China model being transmitted and developed in Ethiopia, Tang remarks that African countries have learned from other nations in the past, yet walked away disappointed. “当他们看到这种学习不起实质性帮助，他们又会感到失望，因为非洲国家已不是第一次向其他国家学习，曾经的欧美，苏联模式都不太管用.” (When they see that this type of learning is not helpful on a practical basis, they will be disappointed, because this is not the first time African countries are learning from other countries. Previous models from Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union were not very helpful.) When contrasted with the failures of the Western model of development, the China model presents itself as a suitable alternative in Ethiopia.
South Africa’s ANC
China has also been very involved in promoting its model of development in South Africa, with South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and the CCP signing a memorandum of understanding in 2008 on China’s enhanced efforts to train ANC members in China. Senior ANC training delegations have been dispatched to China regularly since then. Between 2008 and 2012, four batches of 56 members of the political party’s National Executive Committee visited China for a seminar on the theme of “From Revolution to Ruling – Theory and Practice of the Ruling Parties in Central and South China.” According to the ANC report published after a delegation’s return from a two-week, eighteen-member study tour in 2009, while in China, the ANC delegation met with CPC minister Wang Jiarui and focused on topics including “the theoretical basis for ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ the party-building experience, experiences in political education, party discipline and combating corruption.” Another senior training delegation to China in December 2015 studied the organizational development of the CCP on the grassroots level and how the local party organs implement the decisions and policies by the Central Committee. The content of these training programs strongly emphasize Chinese strategies of political management and control, exclusively presenting the China model rather than offering a variety of alternative developmental paths.
The CCP’s political influence in South Africa cannot be seen more clearly than in its support for the development of the ANC’s own party school in South Africa. Both inspired and financed by the CCP, the ANC built a new political leadership school in the town of Venterskroon in 2014. Officials stated that the institute would be “modeled on the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai, one of the Communist Party’s leadership and governance schools where party members and foreign guests attend classes on ‘revolutionary traditions,’ learning everything from Marxist theory to media management.” The CCP also agreed to provide training materials and instructors for the development of the party school, thus allowing for the cementation of its ideological influence within the ANC’s ranks. Analysts have voiced fears that this close political collaboration between China and Africa represents a direct attempt by the CCP to export its ideology to developing countries. Patrick Heller, Professor of International Studies at Brown University, points out that the ANC dominates South African politics, having won every election since 1994 with over 60% of the votes. The tremendous amount of power that the ANC has amassed and centralized within its party can give off the appearance that South Africa is a one-party state. As the ANC continues to develop close personal ties with a cadre-based political party like the CCP, it becomes increasingly likely that South Africa will embark upon a similar authoritarian path.
While official Chinese statements speak of shared historical struggle and the prospect for mutual gains through partnership between the two nations, ANC representatives confirm their intention to “borrow” the China model for developmental purposes. At a 2011 meeting with a delegation from the Executive Committee of the ANC, Xi Jinping spoke of the similarities between the CCP and ANC, stating that both parties were “born during the crisis of their own nation being subjected to external oppression and bullying, yet ultimately led their people in a long-term and unremitting struggle for national independence, democracy, and freedom.” ANC official Mantashe, on the other hand, declared his admiration for the great achievements of the CCP in leading the Chinese nation in the process of nation-building, asserting that the CCP’s ruling experience and founding theory deserves to be learned and borrowed by the ANC: “国共产党的执政经验和建党理论值得非国大学习和借鉴.” This rhetoric from the ANC’s own ranks could imply that the CCP has advertised the China model as an ideology to be adopted by developing countries, rather than just an experience to be shared.
South Sudan’s SPLM
A third country with which China has established party ties is South Sudan. As the world’s youngest country, South Sudan is particularly impressionable to the influence of a foreign government. Amid developing its government institutions and political system, South Sudan’s former liberation party has also split into several factions due to a four-year civil war. Initially attracted to the young nation for its major oil prospects, China was “one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan and remains engaged with the country, with 2,600 peacekeepers and more than 100 Chinese businesses and investors” stationed there. Delegations of government officials from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party travel to China several times a year to study with the CCP, and bureaucrats from the government’s ministries of culture, transport, health and more visit every month for trainings. Even before South Sudan became an official state, Kuo points out that officials were hosted in China to attend workshops on poverty alleviation, managing public opinion, and building a party. The content of these political party training programs is remarkably consistent across all three case studies, suggesting that there is in fact a coherent model of development that China is presenting, intentionally omitting alternatives for African nations to consider.
Similar to Ethiopia’s EPRDF, South Sudan’s SPLM connects its willingness to learn from the CCP to shared historical experiences. Sun claims that “the SPLM seems to believe that given shared experience in historical struggle against imperialism and colonialism, there are much similarity and common ground between SPLM and the CCP’s origins.” Indeed, both the Chinese Communist Party and the SPLM grew out of armed guerrilla movements and have their roots in socialism. However, Kuo contends that this is where the similarities between the two ruling parties end: “the Chinese communist party transformed itself into a government that maintains one-party rule over a country that is mostly one ethnicity, Han Chinese. In contrast, the SPLM in Juba is locked in a civil war with splinter parties, divided by region and ethnicity in a country home to more than 60 ethnic groups.” Nevertheless, the SPLM seems to be taking inspiration from the CCP, especially the General Secretariat for the SPLM Kpandu, who claims he reads from his copy of Concise History of the Chinese Communist Party every day. He has also stated his intentions to establish a youth arm of the SPLM, modeled after the Communist Youth League of China, as well as an SPLM training on code of conduct and party structure. Despite these sentiments, Kpandu insists that South Sudan will not copy every aspect of the China model by transforming into a one-party state. Adams Bodomo, director of the Global African Diaspora Studies Research Platform and professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, claims that African elites “are not robots and tabula rasa such that the Chinese will just stuff them with whatever they want,” instead stating that the young generation selects what lessons they wish to take from China’s example.
Nevertheless, concerns that the China model will influence the malleable political future of South Sudan persist. Samson Wasara, Vice Chancellor at the University of Bahr el Ghazel in Wau state, fears that the SPLM already sees the CCP as its role model. Lamenting the biased political influence that China exhibits on the young African nation, Wasara states that “when [African elites] go to China they will not be talking about democracy.” By withholding alternative models of development and imparting the China model as the single, most superior choice for developing nations, the CCP has the capacity to influence the next generation of African political elites in a direction that will favor China.
A Burgeoning Soft Power Strategy
I assert that the party-to-party exchanges and political party training programs conducted by China in African countries are one component of a larger strategy crafted by Beijing to amass soft power in the developing world. While Western media coverage of Chinese initiatives in Africa often focus on trade and investment, resource extraction, the presence of “Chinese boots on the ground” with respect to UN peacekeepers, and diplomatic interchange between Beijing and African officials, perhaps the real threat posed by China is its growing use of “soft power” in Africa. The concept of soft power was first coined by American scholar Joseph Nye in the 1990s, referring the power of a country to attract, as opposed to coerce, others to achieve a favorable outcome. In other words, soft power can be conceived of as “the use of co-optation through engagement of different sorts rather than coercion to achieve foreign policy aims.” It is achieved through a projection of culture, political values, and international moral standing; hence soft power can be exerted through everything from television dramas to training and scholarship programs.
Over the past decade, China has “adopted and redefined soft power” as a power-building mechanism throughout the developing world. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “soft power with Chinese characteristics” became a core policy concept in 1993 to “support the goal of restoring China’s global prominence…amplifying non-coercive tools—diplomacy, party-to-party building, strategic communications, and preferential access to the Chinese market—as tools of strategic influence, educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges.” Chinese soft power is employed in support of various strategic objectives, complementing its efforts to portray its rise as “peaceful” by allowing it to use strategically-focused relations without relying on military power.
There are several components of China’s soft power strategy in Africa, with political party training programs serving as one route to exert soft power as foreign policy. China is particularly interested in cultivating the young generation of African elites, recently expanding its training to include “next generation leaders” through the Sino-Africa Young Political Leaders Program. More than 200 Africans graduated from the program between 2011 and 2015, and Beijing has stated that it will increase this intake to 1,000 by 2018. Similarly, China’s soft power initiative has also included outreach to African students, most notably through providing scholarships to study in China. The number of African students in China has grown from just under 2,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015, making China the second most popular destination for African students studying abroad after France, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (Breeze and Moore 2017).
Since 2006, China has set scholarship targets to aid African students coming to China for study. At the most recent China-Africa Cooperation summit, China pledged to provide 30,000 scholarships to African students by 2018. The educational support that China provides to young African elites offers mutual benefit to both parties. The experience that these students get in China can translate into a willingness to cooperate with China and view China’s internal and external policies more favorably in the future.
Another component of this soft power strategy is hosting forums as a means to widen inter-party channels for exchange between young people in China and Africa. Under the framework of the China-Africa Youth Leaders Forum, the CPC has established a seminar program for leaders of African political parties, in which the party leaders exchange experiences on how to lead their countries, formulate and implement development plans, and carry out youth work. Both China and Africa have unanimously agreed to institutionalize the Forum of Young Leaders by alternating the location at which it is held every three years.
Evidence from similar summits held in regions outside of Africa reveals an indirect promotion of the China model. Kurlantzick points out that although summits with Southeast Asian leaders initially offered China the opportunity to emphasize its role as a potential strategic partner and source of investment and trade, they have also “subtly advertised” China’s model of development over the past five years. For example, several Thai politicians who attended the Boao Forum for Asia, a type of China-centered version of the World Economic Forum in Davos, noted that, in recent years, some of the discussions at Boao “had shifted from a kind of general talk of globalization and its impact in Asia to more specific conversations about some of the failings of Western economic models exposed by the global economic crisis, and whether China’s type of development might be less prone to such risks.” This further strengthens the theory that by denigrating Western development models, the CCP is framing its own system as a more suitable option.
A final part of China’s soft power strategy involves discursive power, or the ability to “control the message” via the expansion of Chinese media presence globally. “Discourse power”, or huayu quan. centers around the idea that China should tell its own story and retain the ability to control its own narrative. One way through which the CCP has accomplished this objective is broadening the appeal of Chinese culture by opening Confucius Institutes or programs on Chinese language and culture throughout the world, in order to spread a Chinese interpretation of Chinese history. Additionally, the CCP has worked to extend the international reach of Chinese media by “launching new China-funded supplements in newspapers in many different countries, and by vastly expanding the reach and professionalism of Chinese newswire Xinhua.” President Xi Jinping has even urged Chinese media organizations to “tell China’s story well”, in order to combat negative images of China that he feels are being spread by media in other parts of the world. Backed by an estimated annual budget of $10 billion, Chinese state news agency Xinhua has opened dozens of news bureaus around the world, CCTV has launched a 24-hour English language channel in the US, and the official China Daily newspaper now publishes several regional editions across the globe. According to its own figures, China’s state-backed international television channel currently reaches over sixty-five million viewers outside the country.
Hence, for the Chinese government, providing education and training to young African leaders, holding summits with African political parties, and shaping the overseas discourse surrounding the China model are all extensions of China’s soft power, aiding the CCP in its strategy of indirectly challenging Western ideology, specifically by cultivating the next generation of African scholars and elites to look favorably upon and cooperate with China in the future.
Evidence of An Attitude Change Towards the China Model
Are political party training programs, as a key component of a larger strategy by China to amass soft power in the developing world, actually undermining the Washington Consensus, democratization, and the liberal order? While it is difficult to statistically determine a correlation between the political party training programs and levels of authoritarianism in African nations, we can analyse the relationship between China’s efforts to cultivate soft power in Africa and the type of development model these nations begin to favor over time. Indeed, public opinion polling suggests that the so-called China model is gaining traction across the African continent, with many African countries looking East for inspiration in political and economic development. According to a survey conducted by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, independent, non-partisan research network that measures public attitudes on economic, political, and social matters in sub-Saharan Africa, China is the second most popular international presence on the continent, only slightly behind the United States. The survey indicates that approximately “30% of 56,000 people surveyed in 36 African countries ranked the US as the most popular model for national development, compared to 24% who ranked China first,” which ultimately suggests that “China rivals the United States in influence and popularity as a development model.”
In fact, in several regions, including Southern Africa, North Africa, and Central Africa, the popularity of China’s model of state-led economic growth matched or even surpassed that of the US. According to Afrobarometer’s analysis, almost two-thirds of those surveyed described China’s presence on the continent as “somewhat” or “very” positive, indicating that the promotion of the China model has indeed produced effects in the form of changes in attitude towards political and economic management in the developing world. Despite considerable criticism in the media with regards China’s interests and operations on the continent, this survey suggests that Africans view China’s emergence as an “addition to the economic playing field.”
Implications for An Ideological Competition
In this paper, I have argued that China is not attempting to overthrow the entire existing global order, but is beginning to shift one key part of it – economic and political development. Rather than directly challenging the Washington Consensus by openly exporting its own development ideology, Beijing’s leaders realize that they can utilize more informal channels to establish a strategic advantage over Western models of political and economic development. Evidence from political party training programs conducted in Ethiopia, South Africa, and South Sudan indicate that rather than present various potential models of development, the CCP solely teaches its strategies of political and economic management in its training seminars, thereby framing its ideology as the best-suited, and even only course for developing nations. Through its interactions with African officials, the CCP is slowly and subtly shifting the distribution of ideologies and norms of development by acquainting developing nations with the China model and its viability for success.
China has already seen initial success in its attempt to quietly impart its ideology upon other nations, thanks to its use of soft power, a strategy proving to be both geographically expansive and institutionally systematic. By attracting African political party members to experience China’s economic success in person, and by systematically training them on China’s path to economic development, “Beijing is consciously trying to entice African political parties to absorb, assimilate and imitate the Chinese model….the profound psychological and political impact on the choices and preferences of African political elites will help create an African cadre with thinking and values that are similar with those in China.” By slowly establishing cultural and educational dominance, China can use Africa as a starting point to build its sphere of influence in the developing world.
If democratic liberalism and the Washington Consensus fail to deliver on the promise of peaceful economic growth in the developing world, alternatives such as the China model will only continue to rise in prominence. As Ratner and Barma warn, traditional foreign policy approaches such as attempting to balance China’s power or ensure its integration into the existing global system will not solve the dilemmas presented by the spread of China’s ideology of alternative governance. If the liberal order is to be preserved, the United States must focus its attention on reasserting the primacy and attractiveness of democratic liberalism in a world in which developing countries – such as those in Africa – are increasingly turning toward a successful and increasingly legitimate illiberal model of governance.