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China’s Provinces as Global Actors: Evidence From China-Africa Relations

South Africa's booth at the second China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo held in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, on September 27, 2022. Image via Xinhua.

By Charlotte Lenz

With the launch in the early 2000s of China’s ‘Going Global’ Strategy, Chinese provinces became one group of actors participating in China’s South-South relations. This has complicated our perception of China, which is often still seen as a unitary actor.

Even when disaggregating the Chinese state, the attention remains mostly on the role of inter-ministerial dynamics or central state-owned enterprises (SOEs) rather than provincial governments and their role in international politics. However, examining China-Africa relations through the lens of central-local relations highlights that Chinese provinces are key actors within China’s overarching foreign policy.

Despite an authoritarian system and centralization under President Xi Jinping, power distribution remains fragmented and provinces have retained agency as foreign policy actors with distinct interests and levels of autonomy and policy spaces, depending on the sector of activity. While policy design and strategy remain under the control of Beijing, sub-state actors pursue their objectives through a “dual strategy”: influencing the design of China’s foreign policy and global strategies from within and during their implementation.

Provinces shape China’s relationship with Africa in two ways:

  1. Through formal and informal ‘twinning’
  2. Through clustering mechanisms in the process of internationalization.

“Twinning” is a collaborative model between central and local actors. Within the framework for decentralized cooperation, central agents design policies, while provincial governments execute projects. China’s distinctiveness – twinning Chinese provinces, i.e. sub-state actors, with African states –institutionalizes long-term commitments, increases efficiency, and generates deeper knowledge of local conditions.

In health policy, for instance, the effectiveness of this model was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling the rapid dispatch of Chinese medical teams based on existing twinning arrangements, which in turn promoted China’s health and vaccine diplomacy. Agricultural development follows a similar mechanism through the Agricultural Technical Development Centres.

Finally, “clustering” follows a sectoral logic of investment and diplomacy in which a certain province engages an African country. This generates provincial interests and incentivizes further engagement in specific countries. Pushed by domestic political factors, such as economic and unemployment targets, provinces expand engagement through provincial SOEs, increasing investment flows, migration, and broader economic relations. As such, provinces are initiating international activities, while central government policy is leveraged to justify previous and future engagement rather than the other way around.

One example of provincial clustering can be found in the construction sector in Zambia, where leading provincial SOEs from Jiangxi positioned themselves strategically, supporting smaller firms from Jiangxi by lowering first-entry barriers through sub-contracting. Jiangxi province supported this ‘clustering’, referring to it as joining forces to go to sea’ (“抱团出海”  baotuan chuhai) or group to go to sea’ (集群“出海” jiqun chuhai), as the province saw the construction sector as a backbone industry supporting domestic party objectives, such as high employment and economic growth.

The logic of twinning and clustering have also shaped Xi’s flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Provincial governments and SOEs have lobbied decision-makers to formalize existing practices in line with their interests. The conceptual ambiguity of the BRI also gave local authorities room to maneuver and interpret central government guidance.

Consequently, Chinese provinces continue to play a central role in China’s engagement across the Global South. Understanding their agency, interests, and limitations is key to a better understanding of China’s evolving global presence.

Charlotte Lenz is an Associate at China Foresight, LSE IDEAS

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