The Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrates its 100th anniversary in July this year. Founded in 1921, the party has transformed itself from one based on revolutionary ideas to one that is driven by state capitalism. The party largely draws its legitimacy from the economic success of China in the last two decades but given the rising income inequality, ageing population, structural slowdown and environmental issues; the party is compelled to build a positive narrative that constantly reinforces a positive image for China and makes a case for CPC’s continued rule in China. While CPC’s narrative building exercises may be lauded domestically, international audiences have been skeptical about Beijing’s global ambitions.
At a juncture when China is already being criticized for numerous reasons, be it the gross human rights violations in Xinjiang, for not raising an early and timely alarm about the pandemic or for mistreating African nationals in Guangzhou, China is yet to drastically swing public opinions in its favour. In addition to this, the border issues with India; the diplomatic turf with United States and Australia; all suggest mounting negative views against China in the current international scenario. Amidst this, China needs to propagate a positive image for itself where the International Department (ID) of CPC is playing a crucial role. The ID of the party maintains connections with about 400 political parties in over 140 countries. In November 2017, the ID hosted a four-day meeting between CPC and representatives from 300 foreign political parties and organizations. According to Prof David Shambaugh, no other ruling party devotes so much attention and effort to maintain ties with political parties in other countries as much as CPC does. These party-to-party ties have been an important factor in cultivating strong political ties with other states.
China-Africa relations is a case in point where Africa has become a prime testing ground for expanding the political outreach of the party. The CPC, since it came to power in 1949, intensified its relations with African countries and under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. CPC supported the liberation movements by providing ideological and military training and also donated supplies to support the guerrilla warfare tactics. However, in Africa’s post-independence period, CPC has engaged with the ruling parties of Africa to enhance China’s overall presence in the continent both politically and economically.
The party-to-party exchanges, training programmes and seminars between CPC and other African political elites and senior cadres have become the key way to export the authoritarian governance model of CPC. Such training exercises are geared towards gaining acceptance for the core political values of CPC among the new generation leaders in the developing countries of Africa. The Chinese leaders, through these exchanges and programmes, build strong network connections with their African counterpart which paves way for further diplomatic maneuvering and builds effective support for China at the multilateral international forums. This has become a strategic tool for Beijing to exercise influence in these countries and align their political decisions in line with Beijing’s priorities.
The CPC is thus gradually making deeper inroads to African ruling parties by organizing such seminars on a regular basis. There are numerous examples of how ruling parties in African countries such as Ethiopia, Congo, Zimbabwe have been influenced by the political party trainings programmes conducted by CPC. Yun Sun, a Brookings fellow, mentioned how Ethiopia is the “most eager student” for ideological training. Ethiopia’s ERPDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) learnt organizational work, ideological work, propaganda, cadre training from these training programmes. Recently, in 2020, CCP organized virtual sessions for the Congolese Party officials on how the “ruling party can play a leadership role” and other topics related to COVID-19 as well as social and economic development. These trainings also educate the party members about how the Chinese government monitors, guides and manages public opinion, including the organizational setup, technologies used and how the relations with media are maintained.
The CPC has also funded political schools in African countries, for instance, financing and building the Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania which is political training academy for local leaders. Apart from propagating political content, these engagements have bolstered China’s foreign policy interests. In 2019, the International Department ID-CCP China hosted the Mozambique Liberation Front and a senior cadre of the Party expressed support for China’s suppression of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Similarly, a delegation from Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress was also hosted by ID and was focused on promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
It has also been noted that these training programs are designed for officials or party members who are under the age of 40, for instance, through the African Political Party Leaders training program under the Sino-Africa Young Political Leaders Forum, China trained more than 200 young African political leaders. The scale and scope of these programmes is expanding, illustrating how CPC wants to influence the young leaders with the political and cultural values of the party. In its official statements, China emphasizes that these training programs are merely an exchange of ideas, but as Yun Sun points out these trainings will have a profound “psychological and political impact over the choices and preferences of African political parties.”
In case of Africa, these party exchanges have paved the way for diplomatic exchanges between the states. In 2006, the ID played a crucial role in getting the heads of state to attend the FOCAC summit in Beijing. Similarly, the party cultivated ties with countries that recognized Taiwan and helped to secure Chinese core national interests on the African landscape. With President Xi coming to power in 2012, the approach of these party-to-party trainings have gained a strong ideological dimensions.
While the African leaders and the people should reflect on the 100-year journey of CPC, they should be careful on what they learn from it. A party which itself has a deep controversial history with programmes such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution which went against the people, there needs to be more speculations on the African side about the values they want to espouse and follow.