The Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which recently passed the U.S. Senate, states that “the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is encouraging other countries to follow its model of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’” and that “the PRC is promoting its governance model and attempting to weaken other models of governance.” I turned to Maria Repnikova, a political scientist and communication scholar at Georgia State University, who has studied Chinese training programs extensively, particularly in Africa. Her book on Chinese soft power is forthcoming as part of the Cambridge University Press Elements in Global China series, and she is completing a longer manuscript on Chinese soft power in Africa, with a focus on Ethiopia.
Jessica Chen Weiss: Does your research on Chinese training programs bear out the argument that China is promoting its governance model abroad?
Maria Repnikova: In my research, I find that these trainings — combining general introductions to China with specific content catered to the visitors — don’t present a coherent model of Chinese governance that can be adopted in other contexts. More broadly, the programs communicate the legitimacy of the Chinese political system and show off China’s successful development, especially in the economic sphere. But rather than encouraging foreign elites to follow China’s model, the trainings tend to advocate for self-reliance, and the idea of finding one’s own path.
In examining training materials on specific issues, such as journalism and civil servants’ education, I also find that Chinese lecturers primarily communicate technical rather than ideological aspects. Media trainings, for instance, focus on how to digitalize traditional journalism. Trainings for civil servants tend to emphasize different teaching methodologies, such as case-study and immersive techniques. Ironically, some of these lectures frequently reference U.S. business school classics, including the widely used “Case Study Handbook” by William Ellet, and organizational problem-solving readings like “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter M. Senge.
JCW: How extensive are these programs, and what exactly are participants learning in them?
MR: The training programs are very extensive, especially targeting certain regions like Africa. At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Chinese government pledged 50,000 training opportunities, in addition to 50,000 government scholarships and a program to train 1,000 African leaders.
The training opportunities are open to government officials, as well as journalists, experts and scholars. The actual trainings are carried out by many entities, from media outlets like Xinhua News Agency to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Beijing Academy of Governance and major universities.
When it comes to learning about Chinese politics, the materials I’ve examined present Chinese Communist Party rule as the only governance system suitable for China and highlight the democratic features of this system. These include village-level elections, but also meritocratic promotions for party members and the party’s consultations with the public. The participants I’ve interviewed reported being surprised to learn about these democratic or participatory features, as Western media tends to focus on China’s authoritarianism.
Other than political facets, the participants in these trainings learn about China’s economic accomplishments — via an overwhelming number of slides filled with statistical data. These programs also give an immersive experience of China, including its cultural sites, but also the symbols that highlight its economic development, from high-speed trains to major megacities, to redeveloped villages. These trainings include immaculately organized tours, displaying China’s hospitality and generosity to the visitors, with luxurious accommodations and banquet meals to showcase the “best of China” experience. The tours tend to be most memorable for participants, who are impressed by the level of modernization and urbanization, but also the distinctive work ethic and organizational skills of their hosts.
JCW: Are Chinese training programs having a negative impact on the influence and appeal of countries like the United States?
MR: In some materials, I did find a subtle critique of the United States or, more broadly, of the West. For instance, in discussing civil servants’ education in China, materials present the Chinese system as more meritocratic — and Chinese officials as more competent than their Western counterparts. And in some discussions of the media, the message is that the Chinese journalistic style of constructive reporting is more suitable in the context of developing economies than Western news reporting, which tends to emphasize problems but not solutions.
So how do participants view these training programs? In my interviews with Ethiopian officials and journalists, I find mixed reflections on these programs. On the one hand, participants noted feeling inspired by the scale and speed of China’s development. At the same time, thus far, these programs appear to incite limited emulation. If we look at trainings aimed at civil servants, for instance, some participants have adopted the teaching techniques, but the actual content taught at Ethiopian governance academies draws more on materials from the West than from China.
In part, even if intended, emulation would be challenging because of the sheer volume of information conveyed in these trainings, and the focus being primarily on the China story rather than on teaching how to incorporate Chinese experiences to diverse contexts. In fact, the participants tend to perceive these trips more as public diplomacy excursions than as serious learning opportunities. Many refer to them as entertaining but struggle to recall specific lessons they have learned.
It’s also worth noting that the U.S. remains an aspirational destination when it comes to education and training. As opportunities to study in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West are rare and challenging to obtain, this means that for many in the Global South, China is the only accessible option for gaining international exposure. As one media interviewee in Ethiopia put it: “It is better to see China than to see nothing.”
JCW: In the broader context of Chinese diplomacy, how should we view these efforts and their effect on China’s influence in the world?
MR: I think we should view these efforts as part of the larger soft-power campaign whereby the Chinese government attempts to legitimize its global economic projects by shaping a more positive sentiment about China. Out of other soft-power mechanisms I have examined in my research, including state-owned media outreach, Confucius Institutes and long-term educational exchanges, I find short-term trainings are relatively more successful in shifting overall perceptions about China. They leave visitors with sentiments of surprise, admiration and gratitude.
But these trainings don’t necessarily create more trust in Chinese economic projects. Concerns with long-term implications of China’s investments and unequal dynamics between China and recipient countries still linger for many of the participants. These immersive experiences, therefore, can result in some dissonance — admiration does not necessarily signify emulation and trust. And yet, for the Chinese government, some admiration and immersion might be preferable to no exposure when it comes to softening concerns about China’s rise, especially in the Global South.