It is no secret that Chinese President Xi Jinping harbours high international ambitions. What was not yet known, however, is the role the Chinese Communist Party plays in this, specifically its International Department. Political scientist Julia Bader analysed the activities of the department. She discovered a fast-growing international network, including in the West, and a more offensive approach towards promoting China's political policies.
News media report almost daily on China's international strategy as an emerging power. ‘But we were not yet familiar with some of the vehicles China uses for this purpose,’ says political scientist Julia Bader at the University of Amsterdam. She is alluding to the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CCP), which has ruled the People's Republic of China since 1949. ‘The department maintains its own relations not only with other communist parties worldwide, but also with non-communist parties. This was a little known fact, yet these relations can be important in that they are potential channels of influence.’
In order to analyse the activities of the CCP's International Department, Bader and her international colleagues delved into the reports on meetings with international relations posted by the party online. ‘And a lot documentation is available,’ explains Bader, ‘because the party wants to use this as a vehicle to demonstrate that it has many international friends who admire China.’ Moreover, Bader linked this information to developments in the relevant countries with which relations have been established. ‘The reports sometimes seem to be empty slogans, but when linked to other data, interesting patterns emerge,’ Bader explains.
Bader identified what kind of parties and with which countries the CCP has established relations. ‘In practice, they are primarily parties who are in power, where the greatest potential influence obviously lies. The CCP also pursues the policy of not interfering in the politics of other countries, and it would be out of place to approach opposition parties. But we have also identified numerous contacts with opposition parties in democratic countries.’
‘In addition, we have found that the network includes many former communist parties and that the party maintains above-average contact with certain countries. In a country such as North Korea, for example, the CCP's activities have considerable influence on relations between the two countries. While the bias towards the left is not surprising, the CCP claims that it is open to all parties. And that's why it's interesting to note that the CCP has also very recently been approaching parties on the left spectrum and communist parties.’
The CCP is increasingly engaging in contact with smaller parties in Western countriesPolitical scientist Julia Bader
‘Our most recent data show that the volume of contacts and activities is rising and that the CCP is increasingly engaging in contact with smaller parties in Western countries, such as Germany and Canada. Although the parties in question may sometimes have little influence, they sometimes do have access to all kinds of political information. For example, on how decision-making processes take place. We suspect that access to such information may explain the growing number of contacts, although we have no concrete evidence as yet.’
‘The reports from the CCP's contacts moreover reveal that the substance of the discussions has changed. In the past, the reports mainly described how others praised China's economic growth model, whereas now China's management and leadership model are often lauded. This may also take the form of a quote from someone participating in a meeting.’
‘Another striking factor is that the International Department of the CCP is adopting a more proactive approach and even organising its own conferences and inviting international guests to attend, for instance. Their passive approach of responding mainly to international criticism is shifting towards an offensive strategy promoting a positive image of China that can bolster Xi Jinping's power base.’
‘This development is expected to be reinforced by the corona pandemic in light of China's seemingly successful approach. The picture painted is that a strong leader is capable of not only combating poverty, but also quashing a pandemic.’
‘In our research we would also like to look at how China uses this network to share certain techniques of repression with other countries. For example, China makes donations to party schools in Africa, but what happens there exactly is not publicly disclosed. We have found that hints lie hidden in how delegates talk about China, in which the message “we can learn from China's administrative techniques” is increasingly conveyed.’
‘It is striking that during our research we hardly found any reports on the Netherlands, only on two meetings, even though the Netherlands, with the port of Rotterdam, has an interesting position for China, also from an economic perspective. So the next step is to find out whether relations may perhaps be maintained at a different level, directly with municipal councillors, for instance.’
It is worrying if Dutch policymakers go along with Beijing’s story
‘A municipality has considerable influence in its immediate vicinity and can make decisions on the local zoning plan, and that may be of interest to investors from China. I would find it a worrying development if Beijing managed to recruit people for their activities in the Netherlands. China keeps a tight rein on what may and may not be said about politics and the party, and you wouldn't want Dutch policymakers to go along with Beijing's story without voicing criticism.’
Read more about Julia Bader's research on the Chinese Communist Party: