How China’s Communist Party seeks to win friends and influence through Mideast political groups

From brokering a deal between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran to offering to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, China’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have raised Beijing’s profile as a player in the region.

These efforts have been at the state level and carried out through the Chinese foreign ministry and state leaders.

But China has also been engaging the region on another level, attempting to promote its own governance model as an alternative to the West by fostering engagement between the Communist Party and political organisations from across the Arab world.

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Observers said party-to-party diplomacy could help China achieve stable, long-term influence in Arab countries by engaging with ruling and opposition parties while expanding China’s regional impact, exporting its governance system and building support on controversial matters such as the legitimacy of one-party rule and Beijing’s policies in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Jesse Marks, a former Fulbright fellow at the Jordan Centre for Strategic Studies, said the Communist Party’s main pursuit in the Middle East was alignment.

“Party-to-party diplomacy has several objectives, from normalising a one-party system among China’s partners to cultivating and developing ideological political partners in countries of strategic interest,” he said.

“In the case of the Middle East, party-to-party diplomacy has been employed to cultivate ideological partners or, at least, reinforce mutual respect for China’s core principles, especially one-party rule.”

The international department of the Central Committee, the Communist Party’s top leadership body, oversees party diplomacy. Established in 1951, the department was largely tasked with handling ties with communist parties of other countries – especially the Soviet Union.

Its mission gradually changed after Beijing and Moscow split over ideological differences in the 1960s, and it started to engage with more parties across the political spectrum as China transformed into an economic powerhouse.

One of the party’s latest diplomatic efforts in the Arab world was in July, when the department held a party-to-party dialogue in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region – an area of northwestern China where Muslims account for about a third of the population.

More than 60 party leaders and think tank representatives from 19 Arab countries were invited to the dialogue, which has been held every two years since 2016.

Unlike the Gulf’s monarchies, where party politics is largely prohibited, developing Arab countries – stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to North Africa – showed great interest in the Communist Party’s invitation, with representatives from Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Djibouti among those taking part.

At the dialogue, one of the topics of discussion was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Global Civilisation Initiative, outlined by Xi in March, which aims to “replace conflict with conversation and exchange” and “oppose hegemony, power politics” – ideas that won praise from many attendees, according to the international department.

The exchange of ideas is typical of the party’s diplomatic engagement with the Arab world, according to Sun Degang, a researcher at Fudan University.

“Unlike China’s governmental diplomacy [to Arab countries], party-to-party diplomacy is not entirely constrained by diplomatic protocol. It places more emphasis on policy and idea exchanges,” he wrote in a paper published in the Chinese journal Arab World Studies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December. Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Press alt=Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December. Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Press>

In 2019, Song Tao, then head of the international department, made clear in an article in party mouthpiece People’s Daily that the party should “unite all the powers that can be united”.

“The party’s foreign work should … secure more comprehenders, supporters, and peers for the [Communist Party] and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” Song wrote in Qiushi, the party’s authoritative theoretical journal, in 2021.

Together with parties in Arab countries, the Communist Party has issued multiple joint statements touching on sensitive issues including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In August 2021, together with 28 political parties and social organisations in the Arab world, the department called for opposing the “politicisation of the traceability of the coronavirus” in the face of pressure from the West.

Four months later, as the United States enacted the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act, the department again joined 33 political parties and social organisations from 15 Middle Eastern countries to oppose it.

The Communist Party is also promoting its governance model to Arab countries as a path to development.

According to Sun, most of the countries in the region with active party politics face economic and political development obstacles similar to those that once plagued China, making the Communist Party’s governance model attractive.

“China and the Arab countries are developing countries, and they all face the arduous tasks of reform, development and stabilisation. As the ruling party, the Communist Party has accumulated a wealth of experience in the management of the country, and this basic experience is of great relevance to Arab countries,” Sun’s paper said.

He added that some countries in the Arab world had yet to emerge from turmoil and conflict, such as Syria and Libya, while others were in a period of transition and faced currency devaluation, fiscal deficits and political instability, such as Iraq and Egypt.

Parties from Arab states ranging from Mauritania and Tunisia to Lebanon and Syria have attended webinars hosted by the Communist Party to learn about its governance.

Lina Benabdallah, an associate professor studying China’s party diplomacy at Wake Forest University, said the developing world’s new generation of political party leaders had looked to the Communist Party as a model.

“Another generation of political party leaders is also inspired by the [Communist Party’s] leadership, development efficiency and legitimacy. From China’s side, there are real opportunities to forge very strong ties to these elites who are either now – or might later be – in power,” she said.

But Marks added that Arab countries still had a long way to go to benefit from the party’s governance model, which he described as being characterised by centralised control of the economy and strong social regulations.

“The idea of a centrally led economy is desirable to many in the region, but the central challenge is that Arab governments – with the exception of a few – are not sufficiently equipped to manage such an economy. Social control is an expensive process, and governments lack money.”

In 2017, Xi said the party wanted to engage other political parties to take a more active role in tackling world problems, and not to export the “China model”.

“[China] will proactively push forward the construction of a global network of partners and will proactively push for political solutions for international hot issues and difficult problems,” Xi said. “We will not require other countries to copy what we do.”

In his speech delivered in March at the Communist Party in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-level Meeting, a major forum for party-to-party diplomacy, Xi said developing countries had the right and ability to independently explore a modernisation path based on their national realities.

Peng Peng, executive chair of the Chinese think tank Guangdong System Reform Research Society, said that by connecting with different parties, the Communist Party could constrain anti-China tendencies in Arab countries.

“Some political parties have been anti-China or anti-communist, so exchanges with more than one political party [in a country] can be utilised to form a restraining force, and are also conducive to mutual understanding.”

Since the national independence wave swept the Arab world during the last century, there has been considerable ideological turnover in the region as countries explore the best path to development.

As a result, parties from across the political spectrum – from nationalism to communism to conservative Islamic politics – split power in these countries.

A Chinese professor, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said China’s party diplomacy aimed to prevent a power vacuum that could be exploited by the West.

According to the scholar, while left-wing, pro-socialist parties are no longer the Communist Party’s main focus for building party-party ties, they are still its closest diplomatic partners.

“There are a lot of pro-socialism parties in the Arab region, but in the end, we find that it’s the conservative and Islamic parties that have a real impact on the countries,” he said. “If you don’t reach out to them, the West will.”

Wang Jin, an associate professor with the Institute of Middle East Studies at China’s Northwest University, added that party-to-party diplomacy could also have cross-border influence in the Arab world.

“There are political parties that have influence not only in one country [in the Arab world]. There may be several countries that have the same political party or a closely related party organisation,” Wang said.

China has become more proactively involved in the Middle East, having brokered a deal for the normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it has offered to play a similar role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Wang added that by communicating with different parties in the region, China could find more possibilities for handling these conflicts.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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