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Locating the Global South in China’s Party Congress

File image of delegates at the Chinese Communist Party's 19th Party Congress in Beijing on October 24, 2017. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

By Lukas Fiala and Hugo Jones

We’re fairly accustomed to observing how the issue of China feeds into elections across global south countries. China is a political football, often framed as a problem that needs to be dealt with and low-hanging fruit for opposition parties looking to criticize the ruling party. Kenya’s recent general election is just one example of how politically charged China-related issues can become during campaigns. But – in the spirit of thinking of global China as a two-way process – how does the global south feed into the most important event on China’s political calendar: the upcoming 20th Party Congress?

The processes of China’s high politics are incredibly opaque. Given the domestic issues that China is facing (economic stagnation, property crisis, demographic slowdown, COVID-19) it’s unlikely that “global China” will dominate the agenda at the party congress from a policy perspective. Xi Jinping and his new Standing Committee will have to weigh painful domestic adjustments to China’s growth model, economy, and public health policy against a bold agenda for national rejuvenation. This balancing act is likely to be presented under the rubric of “common prosperity”, a slogan revived by Xi Jinping last year.

Yet, while the party congress will undoubtedly prioritize Chinese interests, these are increasingly placed within a broader conception of China’s place in the world. As such the idea of China as a major power that is respected in world politics is likely to feature as a prominent discourse.

As Xi’s recent visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have shown, even after almost three years of isolation from in-person diplomacy, foreign policy remains a key tool to foster legitimacy for the CCP by framing Xi Jinping as a respected and welcomed statesman. Take for example the list of countries who have offered their well wishes ahead of the Party Congress, published by Xinhua on Sunday.

While schmoozing the CCP and Xi personally may seem like a low-cost diplomatic strategy for leaders across the developing world, the significance of the Global South in Chinese politics extends beyond minted diplomatic jargon and tell us about China’s great power identity politics.

Take China’s recent action-packed blockbuster ‘Homecoming’ (万里归途), for instance. Set in a fictional country in Africa, it interprets the much-touted story of China’s evacuation of 36,000 nationals from Libya in 2011 from the perspective of Chinese diplomats. Released on 30th September, the movie brought in box office sales of 200 million yuan ($28 million) within one day. Patriotic movies are often released to coincide with China’s National Day on October 1. Homecoming also echoes similar forerunners such as Operation Red Sea, which was (very) loosely based on the PLA’s evacuation mission in Yemen in 2015 and promoted in the context of the PLA’s 90th anniversary and the 19th Party Congress in 2017. It’s notable that these settings are used as the backdrop for Chinese propaganda and readily galvanize popular nationalism in China.

These films tell us a broader story of how China’s role in the world is communicated to a domestic Chinese audience. This new genre of popular media serves to portray China as a major power – one with global reach and responsibility to protect Chinese citizens. The racist and often essentializing depiction of places in Africa and the Middle East as chaos- and disease-ridden contrasts starkly with the well-organized, peaceful China as a major power. The fictional portrayal of Chinese diplomats and the PLA rescuing Chinese nationals from supposedly war-torn developing countries stands in direct contrast to the orderly procession of elite power transition at the upcoming Party Congress, where Xi Jinping embarks on a third term in office. In this vein, we can expect the South to play a growing role in legitimating China’s – and thus Xi Jinping’s – domestic political order.

In turn, Global South leaders certainly have reason to watch the outcome of the party congress closely. The new line-up of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, with foreign policy tsar Yang Jiechi on the way out, may indicate shifts in the tone and direction of China’s diplomacy. And with the BRI at a turning point, many look for signs indicating the future of Chinese development finance and of how China plans to address mounting debt distress in Global South countries.

China’s party-state system is of course inherently hierarchical with a small set of powerful cadres making key decisions leading up to the Congress. Yet, with all the talk about the politics of power in Beijing, we should not forget that foreign policy operates in a multidimensional way. Feedback loops from abroad inform domestic politics and vice-versa, even in authoritarian settings.  

Lukas Fiala is the project coordinator for the China Foresight initiative at LSE IDEAS. Hugo Jones is the program and research associate at LSE IDEAS. Chris Alden is the director of LSE IDEAS.

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