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Marking Communist Centenary, China Heralds Its Rising Influence

A big screen outside a shopping mall in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of China's Communist Party.
A big screen outside a shopping mall in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of China's Communist Party.

China was marking the 100-year anniversary of its ruling Communist Party on July 1 to herald its rise on the world stage, celebrating what it says is its growing influence abroad, along with an array of economic and political victories at home.

Standing at the Gate of Heavenly Peace above a portrait of Mao Zedong, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech to a massive crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing where he credited the party with lifting the country out of poverty and pledged to expand its military and political influence, saying that the era of China being bullied was “gone forever.”

“We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us,” Xi said. “We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.”

“By the same token, we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate [China]. Anyone who tries will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.”

The fiery rhetoric, which was met by thunderous applause, comes at a time of rising Chinese nationalism that has coincided with Beijing taking on a more assertive and prominent role in world affairs.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s international influence, appeal, and attraction have continually increased, placing it at the forefront of world politics,” Guo Yezhou, deputy head of the party’s external liaison department, told reporters on June 28.

China has seen huge improvements in living standards over the past 40 years, accompanied by rising international financial and political influence.

Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.
Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.

Yet, while many nations have benefited from China’s rise, analysts note, Beijing is also seen as eroding democracy and human rights in countries over which it holds economic influence.

They say the trend highlights an increasing contrast between the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation at home and how it is seen abroad.

“In Chinese diplomacy, domestic politics is always king, and a lot of the way that Beijing has behaved over the last few years is geared towards that domestic audience,” Peter Martin, the author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, told RFE/RL.

“Many governments are worried that China will attempt to spread its model across the world, so internationally there is more concern about Beijing under the [Communist Party] than there has been since at least the 1970s.”

Charting Pushback

As much of the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic that seemingly originated in central China, Beijing has been flexing its geopolitical muscles, leading to both increased heft and deteriorating relationships across some parts of the world.

A June 30 survey of 17 advanced economies in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific by the Pew Research Center found that most countries see China in an unfavorable light, with views of Xi “near historic lows.”

Over the last year, China has had a trade row with Australia, a military clash with India along their shared border, and effectively taken control of parts of the disputed South China Sea.

China’s policies in its western Xinjiang Province, where it is operating an internment-camp system that has detained 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, have also damaged its relations with many countries.

While Beijing’s standing with Central Asian governments remains strong, the internments next door have inflamed tensions and contributed to negative views of China among local populations and led to protests and pickets in Kazakhstan, for instance.

The United States government and several Western parliaments have meanwhile labeled China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

Tit-for-tat sanctions with the European Union over Xinjiang led to the bloc freezing a massive investment deal in May between Brussels and Beijing.

China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which takes its name from a nationalistic Chinese film franchise and refers to the combative tone taken by the country’s diplomats online, has also ruffled feathers in many Western countries and led to diplomatic spats across Europe.

Allegations of “vaccine diplomacy,” wherein Beijing has donated and preferentially sold doses of COVID-19 vaccines, have also highlighted a potential path for expanding Chinese influence and trading doses for political favors.

Such charges surfaced on June 24 with Western diplomats alleging that Beijing pressured Ukraine into withdrawing its support for greater scrutiny into Xinjiang by threatening to withhold vaccine shipments. Chinese authorities denied the accusations.

“We won't be seeing a recalibration in Chinese diplomacy,” said Martin. “Beijing shows no signs of softening its approach on any issue, from environmental policies to Xinjiang.”

Following China's Rise

Despite China’s newfound international difficulties, Beijing is still successfully expanding influence across much of the world, said Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former adviser on Chinese strategic issues to the French Defense Ministry.

“The developing and emerging world is a huge area where China is actually pushing harder and harder to expand its own influence and is showing results,” she told RFE/RL.

Beijing has expanded diplomatic ties across Africa, Eurasia, and Latin American in recent years, inking technology and infrastructure deals under the guise of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.
Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” said Rolland. “Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place.”

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked up their growing partnership during a June 28 teleconference in which the two leaders extended the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years.

In Serbia, which is a crucial hub for Beijing’s growing presence in the Balkans, Chinese technologies have gained a foothold through surveillance cameras and a “smart city” project, which includes data gathering, storing, and management, under way in Belgrade and planned for Novi Sad.

Chinese companies have also begun to supply surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia, where the security services of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have each inked agreements in recent years.

The systems are officially sold as monitoring of traffic and citizens, but the use of the technology raises ethical and human rights concerns and has been already deployed widely across China, including as part of a vast surveillance system in Xinjiang to target Uyghurs.

Elsewhere, China has made forays into education. Three Serbian universities have signed a cooperation agreement with Jiao Tong University, opening the door to deeper long-term cultural ties.

A planned university project in Budapest with Shanghai’s Fudan University has come under fire in Hungary for its use of taxpayer funds, but the campus would mark an important milestone as the first Chinese university in the EU.

“This is the next step for a power like China, which has risen to a new level,” said Rolland. “[Beijing] wants other countries to become amenable to the principles and values within its own system.”

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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