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China Expands Training Programs to Promote Authoritarian Governance


Debate has raged for decades over whether Beijing is actively exporting its authoritarian system abroad, but a new report based on a trove of previously unexamined government documents shows how China is experimenting with spreading its model to other countries.

The new report released on June 13 by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, is based on 1,691 files from China's Commerce Ministry that were logged online in 2021 and 2022. The dataset describes 795 governmental programs made up of trainings and exchanges with foreign officials that the documents state are designed to promote ideas and practices from China's economic and political model among countries in Eastern Europe and the Latin American, African, and Asian countries that make up the so-called Global South.

"This is real evidence to support what has been becoming a growing belief among the expert community," Niva Yau, the report's author and fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, told RFE/RL. "We can now demonstrate in China's own words from its internal planning documents what it is trying to do."

Chinese officials have repeatedly said Beijing isn't exporting its authoritarian system for governing, but the collection of government files add to an emerging body of evidence showing that China is trying to sell the merits of its model to officials across the Global South while also developing new initiatives and practical programs to speed up their adoption.

The China Model

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has held an exclusive grip on power for more than 70 years and seen its economy boom in recent decades using a model based on single-party authoritarian political rule married with a state capitalist economic system.

Promoting this system to other countries around the world is seen by analysts as a way to cultivate an authoritarian-friendly political bloc that could help Beijing reshape global institutions and counterbalance Western attempts to isolate China with economic sanctions or criticism of its commercial practices, territorial claims, or human rights record.

Many of the documents in the report describe training programs on trade-related areas like port management guidelines, adopting BeiDou -- China's answer to the U.S.-created GPS -- and sectors like blockchain and other new technologies.

The files, however, also delve into other areas traditionally outside of the Commerce Ministry's purview. Some promote exchanges centered on how local think tanks can help implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- China's multibillion-dollar infrastructure project -- and also push Chinese government policies through programs focused on issues like integrating ethnic minorities, managing new forms of media, and training in Chinese governance practices tailored for presidential advisers from foreign governments.

The programs themselves are set up through bilateral agreements or through Chinese-led multilateral regional organizations where they focus on specific geographic regions and groups of countries that share a similar language.

For example, multiple documents describe training courses for local government leaders, university presidents, and political advisers "from Russian-speaking countries," while other programs are specifically designed for officials from member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

An excerpt from a 2021 Chinese Ministry of Commerce document outlining an exchange and training program for government leaders from "Russian-speaking countries."

Yau says these programs are designed to sell a narrative to the Global South that the swift economic advancement experienced by China over the last three decades is the direct result of the country's authoritarian approach to governing.

"These files show that China is exporting not only the hands-on knowhow for its economic success but is also spreading the idea that this success directly stems from the governing methods of the [Chinese Communist] Party," she said.

'An Intelligence-Collection' Dimension And Beyond

While many governments around the world promote practical exchanges and trainings with officials from foreign countries, the tranche of files documented by Yau stand out in that many use dry government language to explicitly endorse a nondemocratic approach to issues like regulating national media, managing legal affairs, and controlling the flow of information online.

Another dimension documented by Yau's report is that many of the programs, especially those geared toward government officials, appear to "serve intelligence-collection purposes" because they require "each participant to submit reports detailing their prior exchanges and engagements between them and other foreign countries in the specific area of cooperation related to the subject of training."

Yau says this requirement from the programs serves multiple ends by first providing an important stream of data collection on foreign government officials. But she says it can also serve as a way to assess the openness of each individual official to the views and policies being advocated during the exchange.

"It can allow [the Chinese side] to decide if this person can be developed as a kind of middleman to facilitate further cooperation with China and their country," she said.

China's outreach and training programs with foreign governments have existed for decades under the purview of the International Liaison Department (ILD), an agency under the CCP's Central Committee, whose core function is party-to-party diplomacy.

But while the ILD was traditionally tasked to engage with countries with one-party rule or similar communist structures, it has expanded in recent years to run programs and exchanges regardless of the orientation of a political party, and has recently held meetings with top-level officials from countries like Kazakhstan and Serbia.

The report highlights how other sections of the Chinese government have also begun to hold similar types of exchanges. In addition to the Commerce Ministry, at least 10 Chinese ministries and departments have held training programs for foreign government officials in the past three years, according to Yau's research.

Given the newly examined files and other evidence, Yau says it's becoming clear that Beijing is trying to export aspects of its political model abroad. Less clear, she says, is the impact that such efforts are having across the world.

"In these files, we can see the intent of what Beijing wants to achieve," Yau said. "Maybe it's too soon to feel the effects yet, but these programs have substantially increased since the late 2010s and they are involving thousands of officials from across the Global South."


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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 16 2024 said:
    If what the author describes as China's authoritarian model has worked brilliantly for it enabling it to become the world's largest economy based on purchasing power parity since 2013 and projected to maintain this position well into the future, then why shouldn't its successful model to other countries.

    China isn't forcing its model on other countries. It leaves it up to them to accept to experiment with it or reject it unlike Western countries who always try to ram their democracy down the throats of other countries whether they like it or not.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • DoRight Deikins on June 16 2024 said:
    That's the way of the world. Most of the 'elite' of the world think they know how to run things and that they ought to run things, and on the other side, they hate criticism or honest doubt that they are not right! That tends toward authoritarianism.

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