Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Political Training Under the Belt and Road Initiative: A Look at the Chinese Communist Party’s First Party School in Africa
Political Training Under the Belt and Road Initiative: A Look at the Chinese Communist Party’s First Party School in Africa

Political Training Under the Belt and Road Initiative: A Look at the Chinese Communist Party’s First Party School in Africa

In June this year, Xi Jinping replied to a letter from attendees of a political training workshop at a party cadre school in Tanzania. The swift reply from Xi demonstrates the importance the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attaches to friendships with foreign political parties, and to the school in question: the newly built Mwalimu Julius Leadership School established by six ruling parties in Southern Africa with financial support from the CCP. One of the students said, “General Secretary Xi Jinping replied to our letter in less than a week despite having such a busy schedule, this fully reflects how much he values China-Africa relations.”

Why did China’s head of state write to a group of young politicians in Southern Africa? And why was the reply written in Xi’s name?

The establishment of the school that Xi wrote to demonstrates that while the investment arm of China’s flagship foreign policy project, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), may be declining, the CCP’s political engagement as part of the initiative is continuing apace—and may even be increasing.

The school in Tanzania is one of the many training initiatives offered by the CCP to foreign political parties. They follow a long history of party-to-party diplomacy and echo the goals of the BRI, which also aims to strengthen “people-to-people connectivity” apart from economic ties. The CCP greatly values engagement with foreign political parties, a component of “people-to-people connectivity,” and sees it as an important channel to win friends and promote the party’s guiding ideology. This is reflected in the lessons taught at the school, which emphasize—among other things—the importance of a strong party leadership across all dimensions of society, how the CCP disciplines itself, its approach to global affairs, and the advantages of a “Socialist System with Chinese Characteristics.” Instructors at the school attribute China’s economic and geopolitical success to these principles, and present them as lessons that ruling parties in Southern Africa could learn from.

The CCP has been providing party training in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other regions for years, but this school represents the first CCP-funded permanent party school in Africa. This may signal the start of a trend of permanent, scaled-up training programs intended to promote China’s governance methods to foreign political parties and cultivate foreign partnerships that will advance CCP goals. The recently announced diplomatic training agreements with Pacific Island countries appear to align with that emerging trend, while the diplomatic schools in Tunisia and Sierra Leone may be even better positioned to endure over the long term. The establishment of the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School offers a timely opportunity to examine the CCP’s goals in providing training to foreign political parties, as part of its efforts in building non-economic ties with Belt and Road countries.  

The Belt and Road: Beyond Trade and Investment

While infrastructure projects and loans are the components of the BRI that receive most public and media attention, the BRI is, since its conception, a foreign policy project that goes beyond trade and investment. In his 2013 speech marking the launch of the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” General Secretary Xi set out the “five connectivities” as the goals of the initiative, which were later written into the BRI action plan jointly published in 2015 by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce. These objectives were best summarized in Xi’s report delivered at the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the same occasion where the BRI was incorporated into the party constitution:

China will actively promote international cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative. In doing so, we hope to achieve policy, infrastructure, trade, financial, and people-to-people connectivity and thus build a new platform for international cooperation to create new drivers of shared development.

Apart from infrastructure connectivity and economic ties, policy coordination and people-to-people exchanges are equally important measures of the success of the Belt and Road. “People-to-people connectivity”  (minxin xiangtong), the bonds of trust and friendship among the people of China and BRI countries, is described in the action plan as the “social basis” of BRI activities.

Wang Yajun, the former deputy head of the CCP’s International (Liaison) Department (ILD), which handles relationships with foreign political parties and elites, noted that people-to-people connectivity is the “strong foundation” of the BRI. It is the requisite for ensuring the BRI’s sustainability. It is a “higher form of connectivity” that is crucial to building a “community of common destiny for mankind,” the BRI’s ultimate goal.

From China’s perspective, the notion of creating “a community of common destiny” does not only mean a future of mutual cooperation and shared development. It also encapsulates the idea that China taking a leading role in world affairs could be beneficial to the prosperity and well-being of the world. It promotes the need to reshape the system of global governance into a state-centered one that is rooted in non-interference, national sovereignty, and respect for each country’s development choices. That, for example, includes developing a system of international human rights that prioritizes peace, security and the “right to develop” over individual rights.

But how is “people-to-people connectivity” developed? The BRI action plan and Xi explain that it encompasses exchanges in education, tourism, culture, public health, technology, media, and more. Emphasis is also put on establishing ties among political parties, legislatures, think tanks, and civil society organizations as well as cooperation in public administration and personnel training.

“Gaining supporters and peers for the Party” 

Building party-to-party relations and exchanges on governance are important components of “people-to-people connectivity” under the BRI. This follows the ILD’s decades-long history of inter-party diplomacy in more than 160 countries and regions.

What exactly does the CCP wish to achieve by engaging with foreign political parties? An essay written earlier this year by Song Tao, the then ILD head, might give some answers.

Song writes that the party’s external work should, “deeply promote Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, continuously enhance foreign political parties’ understanding and recognition of the CCP’s leadership and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in order to “gain more supporters and peers for the Party and the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” 

He added that the CCP must:

Give top priority to safeguarding the security of the Party’s rule and the security of the Socialist System with Chinese Characteristics, work extensively and deeply with foreign political parties, political organizations, social organizations and think tanks … and strongly counter the smearing and suppression of the Party by hostile forces, thereby helping strengthen the foundation of the Party’s rule.

Song continues to explain that the party’s external work also includes sharing the CCP’s philosophies and experience in governing itself and the country. This answers to the “eagerness” of foreign political parties in learning the “secrets of the system behind which the CCP leads the Chinese people to great achievements.”

In an earlier commentary, Song spoke of the importance of the CCP’s external work to achieve “high quality development,” a recalibrated aim of the BRI laid down by Xi in 2019 at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. High-quality development means that the BRI should be open, green, clean, inclusive, and strive to be high-standard, people-centered, and sustainable. In Song’s view, the party’s external work is conducive to forming a consensus on development goals and building trust, upon which the CCP could lead by example and work with parties in BRI countries towards “high quality development.”

In short, the former ILD head makes clear that the CCP’s party-to-party work involves promoting the party’s guiding ideology, countering the influence of “hostile forces,” and allowing foreign parties to learn from the CCP’s experience in governance and development. The Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School, the CCP’s first party-school-like training facility in Africa, might offer a glimpse into how all this is put into practice.

A Symbol of Friendship

The school is jointly established by the six ruling parties and Former Liberation Movements of Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, with the support of the CCP. In his congratulatory letter for the school’s opening, Xi said the school provides an opportunity for the CCP and the six parties to “learn from each other and strengthen the exchange of experience in governance,” “support each other in pursuing development paths that are in line with national conditions,” and “promote the creation of a community of shared destiny between China and Africa.”

The six parties and the CCP share a long history of friendship. The CCP “stood with” the six Former Liberation Movements during their independence struggles. The six parties, in the ILD’s words, “cherish their traditional friendship with the [CCP], and wholeheartedly admire the remarkable achievements China has made under the leadership of the [CCP] Central Committee with [Xi] as the core.” Young cadres who received training at the school have also vouched to carry forward the China-Africa friendship.

Party-Building, Poverty Alleviation, and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

The CCP has helped with both the hardware and software of the school. Modeled on CCP training facilities, the school was constructed by the state-owned China Railway Construction Engineering Group, with a $40 million fund from the CCP’s ILD.

Renmin University, a public research university subordinate to the Ministry of Education, “actively participated” in the preparation of the school and provided teaching proposals. Professors at Renmin were also invited to give lectures on “Party history, Party-building and experience in state governance.”

The CCP has also pledged to provide support to the school’s local teaching staff through “training for trainers” courses.

Training at the school covers “party-building (dangjian), poverty alleviation, and other common areas of concern.” Party-building generally refers to bolstering the party’s organizational infrastructure, guiding theories, and internal discipline. Grassroot-level party building, in Xi’s words, includes strengthening lower-level party organs and “projecting the political functions” of non-party institutions, including businesses, rural villages, schools, research institutes, street-level communities, social organizations, economic organizations, and so on.

From May to June, the CCP hosted a week-long training workshop at the school for 120 cadres from the six parties, a look into the training sessions at the workshop gives an even better idea of what the CCP teaches at the school.

In the workshop’s opening ceremony, Song introduced “the five paths China must take” put forward by Xi, which emphasize that the Party’s “comprehensive leadership” and “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” are central to the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. Song further explains that the recent achievements and transformations of China are all attributable to the leadership of Xi as the core of the CCP and its Central Committee. It was also said that Xi’s international initiatives, including “high quality development” of the BRI, “[offer] Chinese wisdom and solutions for the problems facing mankind.”

Training sessions at the workshop likewise stress the importance of a ruling party’s strong leadership. The Shibadong Village from Hunan and the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Hunan Provincial Party Committee gave an online talk on the village’s experience in alleviating poverty. The panel speakers talked about how Xi’s “16-word instruction” during a visit to the village in 2013 became the drive for the village’s fight against poverty. The central theme of the session was that directives from party leaders and the leadership of local cadres are the key to Shibadong’s success story. Students from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front “lauded” Xi for leading by example and personally visiting and studying poverty-stricken areas. Cadres from South Africa’s African National Congress and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola were “amazed” at how the CCP motivated its people to lift themselves from poverty.

In another virtual session, the Qingdao government shared its experience in grassroots-level city management, grassroots-level party-building, and inter-city exchanges.

Other classes from Renmin University scholars focused more on CCP ideology. Wang Yigui, international relations professor and vice president of the Academy of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, discussed the meaning of “a community of shared destiny for mankind.” Wang reviewed the evolution of the “China-Africa community of shared destiny”—from one that’s based on common enemies and suffering (from imperialism and colonialism), to one where China and Africa support each other in pursuing development paths that suit national conditions, and now to one that’s built upon the common responsibility to offer wisdom and solutions to global problems. Wang went on to elaborate how Xi’s BRI, and the newly introduced Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative reduce the “four major deficits” in peace, development, trust, and governance, and contribute to creating a community of shared future. Wang also took questions on issues including China’s views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, UN reforms, and China’s approach to foreign policy.

Professor Zhang Xiaomeng, deputy dean of Renmin University School of Marxism Studies, held a seminar with a simple and clear theme: “Why Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is Good.” Zhang explained the history, evolution, and advantages of the system and its contributions to the world. Some other topics covered include China’s economic model and the state-market relationship in China’s socialist market economy. Professor Zhao Xusheng from the CCP Central Party School, an expert on party discipline and comparative party research, was also among the speakers at the workshop.

The classes at the CCP-held training workshop were centered on how the party manages itself, how to strengthen party leadership, and the CCP’s guiding theories. Emphasis was also put on promoting the CCP’s worldview, including what roles China and Africa should assume in global affairs. And these are only the sessions that are publicly reported. Training in the past has also covered such topics as propaganda systems and censorship methods. As the six founding parties of the school have been the sole ruling party in their respective countries since independence; analysts worry that the school’s training could help the six parties consolidate their one-party rule.

Training Programs Made Permanent

The CCP has for years provided training to foreign political parties, not just in Africa, but also in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other regions. The opening of the Mwalimu Julius Nyrere Leadership School, the first permanent CCP-funded party school in Africa, might signal a trend to make training programs permanent and increase their capacity. The newly built Diplomatic Academies in Sierra Leone and Tunisia, described by the Tunisian Foreign Minister as an important platform to learn about the Chinese experience, are more examples of Chinese-built training facilities. Beyond Africa and cadre training, the Solomon Islands government is reportedly seeking to make permanent arrangements for Chinese police to train their local law enforcement. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also announced diplomatic training arrangements with Pacific Island countries in May this year. More countries are set to be exposed to teachings on the Chinese forms of governance.

While the volume of BRI loans and investments might be on the decline, leading some to believe that the BRI is slowing down, the CCP’s training initiatives—as part of its efforts to build “people-to-people connectivity”—are showing no signs of stopping.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Update: The article has been updated to note diplomatic schools in Tunisia and Sierra Leone. 

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Herman Emmanuel)