Political party training: China’s ideological push in Africa?

The ideological aspect of China’s engagement in Africa has always been an intriguing topic for observers. There is a history to it. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government spent great efforts and resources on “exporting revolution” (communism and revolutionary war) to developing countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. Since the reform and opening up, China gradually abandoned the ideology-driven foreign policy. However, with China’s more recent rise, what has emerged instead is the so-called “China model” featuring authoritarian capitalism. China is actively promoting this new model of China’s political and economic development in Africa through political party training programs, which constitute a key component of Chinese foreign policy toward Africa.

The political party training programs’ goal is to educate African political parties on China’s experience in economic development and political governance. They almost universally include three basic components. These are 1) lectures at a Chinese education or training institution, 2) field trips to a local government for first-hand experience and meetings with local officials, farmers, and businesses, and 3) cultural programs to familiarize participants with Chinese traditional culture. Not all training programs take place in Beijing. In fact, only the most senior-level ones are hosted in Beijing, and the more common programs for mid- to low-level African officials are placed in local Chinese cities.

Ethiopia: China’s most “eager” student

Indeed, Ethiopia has been the most eager student 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.” After being convinced that China’s model was successful, Ethiopia became rather insistent on learning of China’s experiences and combining them with the Ethiopian local conditions. As a result, training programs soared. Senior EPRDF training delegations were dispatched to Beijing regularly. The June 2011 delegation focused on poverty alleviation. The August 2013 delegation focused on cadre management. The most recent one, in February 2016, focused on domestic development, especially on how to manage youth. Due to these collaborations, Chinese scholars and media regard Ethiopia as the biggest success of the China model in Africa. Ethiopia’s policy on foreign investment and special economic zones as well as its focus on infrastructure development are often attributed to Chinese enlightenment.

Through training and exchanges, China also contributed significantly to the EPRDF’s political development and capacity building. EPRDF’s cadre training system has learned and imitated many aspects of Chinese Communist Party’s setups.  Its Central Party School and party cadre education system owes its success to a 2011 training program by the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. During the program, the Ethiopian party cadres were taught comprehensively how to manage their own organizational structure, ideological work, propaganda system, cadre education, and relations between the central-local relations within the party.  

Given the similar non-democratic nature of their domestic politics, the Chinese Communist Party has many lessons, experiences, and advice to offer the EPRDF. One example is on how to manage the media, public opinion, and criticism/opposition of the party, areas in which the Chinese Communist Party takes great pride. In a training program last year, a senior study group from the EPRDF was educated on how the Chinese government monitors, guides, and manages public opinion, including the organizational setup, technologies used, legislation passed, and relations with the media.

China’s political party training programs extend beyond Ethiopia

In other cases, African political parties’ training programs in China focus less on authoritarian aspects of governance, but more on the capacity and the development of political parties themselves. In the past five years, this type of training program has been conducted for National Congress Party of Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of South Sudan, the South West African People’s Organization of Namibia, and the Communist Party of South Africa. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and the Chinese Communist Party signed 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 training on the “theories and practice of the ruling parties in China and in South Africa.” A senior training delegation to China in December 2015 studied the organizational development of the Chinese Communist Party on the grass-roots level and how the local party organs implement the decisions and policies by the Central Committee.

Understanding the democratization and multiparty system in African countries, China’s political party training programs target not only the ruling parties, but the opposition parties too. For example, as noted above, China provides training to the Communist Party of South Africa and the ANC. In September 2013, Party Secretary General Blade Nzimande led a senior cadre training delegation to China to study issues of “socialism theories and practices.” Interestingly, efforts seem to be made to balance the training for ruling parties and opposition parties. In December 2015, the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China invited an ANC training delegation led by ANC’s chief treasurer; six months later a similar 10-day training was conducted for the Communist Party of South Africa, this time led by the Communist Party’s chief treasurer.

China’s systematic approach also extends to future African political leaders. Younger generation elites receive special attention and resources for training from the Chinese government. These training programs are designed for government officials or political party members under the director levels and under the age of 40. This category has been growing particularly fast. Between 2011 and 2015, through the African Political Party Leaders training program under the Sino-Africa Young Political Leaders Forum, China trained more than 200 African young political leaders. Just last year, when China announced a major plan to invite 1000 such young leaders to China for training before March 2018, greatly boosting the scale and scope of the project.

Is China teaching ideology, offering opinions, or just sharing experiences?

Whether the China model constitutes an ideology is debatable. After all, China itself is still exploring and theorizing its own economic and political models, so there is not necessarily a mature, comprehensive ideology that China is pushing or exporting. However, China does seek to promote the Chinese experience in governance and development in African countries. Party-to-party exchanges and political party training programs have been the key venue for this ideological agenda. 

China states that the training programs are strictly exchanges of opinions rather than an imposition of the China model on African countries. In other words, China invites African political party cadres to China to study the Chinese way of governance on issues they are interested in, but whether they eventually adopt the Chinese way is purely at their own discretion. This approach does constitute capacity building, but is perhaps less dictatorial compared to Western capacity-building programs in that China does not assume their experience represents the “ultimate truth.”  

China actively pushes African political party members to personally experience China’s economic success and systematically train them on China’s paths to such a success. The conscious pursuit of the demonstration effect and efforts to help African political parties to absorb, assimilate, and duplicate the Chinese experience do constitute a different type of ideological push. It is geographically expansive, institutionally systematic, and will have a profound psychological and political impact over the choices and preferences of African political parties, thus over African political landscape.