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Why Local Governments are Key to Understand China’s Foreign Policy

Serving “the party’s foreign relations” is “Shanghai’s honour” as proudly stated by the Shanghai Observer (Zheng, 2018). Indeed, subnational diplomacy, that is, the engagement of local governments in foreign policy, is of no small importance for Beijing. This article contends that China’s central-local relations led to a unique form of subnational diplomacy, making provinces key actors in China’s foreign policy.

Source: Pexels (Magda Ehlers)

Subnational diplomacy in context: central-local relations in China

China is a highly decentralised country, if not one of the most. Under the Mao era, China was already not the “overcentralised” (Lyons, 1990) regime it is usually associated with, as it went through two major waves of decentralisation. Yet it remained limited in its scope and consequences, especially when compared with the subsequent “reform and opening-up” from the late 1970s.

Indeed, the new set of decentralisation measures carried out by Deng Xiaoping, hand in glove with unprecedented economic reforms, was a game changer. The policy of “delegating authority and allowing benefits” (放权让利, fangquan rangoli) in the 1970s and the 1990s’ fiscal decentralisation entrusted local authorities with discretion in terms of investment and budget allocation, along with policy experimentation. Together with urbanisation and economic development, decentralisation pushed local governments to look beyond borders and develop international strategies. The late emergence of subnational diplomacy in China contrasts with Europe, where cities have been engaging in twinning partnerships since the end of World War II.

Decentralisation was primarily motivated by economic considerations. It catalysed what Jean Oi (1992) calls “local state corporatism” to show that subnational authorities “developed their interests in the economy”, although sometimes at odds with national interests (Fewsmith, 2021). Indeed, reforms challenged China’s administrative and political arrangement.

Yet, the party-state has largely preserved its ‘state capacity’, that is to say, its capacity to control the politico-administrative apparatus and accomplish its will. Strengthening the cadre management system may have been of great help in upholding the principle of the “party controls the cadres” (党管干部 dangguan ganbu) (Edin, 2003). In this fine-tuned system, cadres are appointed and promoted based on both meritocracy and clientelism. Competences are assessed through the degree of completion of pre-defined tasks (任务 renwu) (Dickson, 2021; Edin, 2003). Since he took office in 2012, Xi Jinping further reinvigorated China’s state capacity and carried out an overall re-centralisation of decision-making.

In this context, China developed a unique form of subnational diplomacy. Xiong Wei 熊炜, associate professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, and Wang Jie 王婕 (2013) give a definition of “city diplomacy” that differs from the traditional and more ‘liberal’ one. They understand it as the “cities’ cooperation with the overall national diplomacy and their participation in international activities" under the authorisation and political guidance of the central government”.

Chinese local governments: agents of Beijing’s foreign policy

Indeed, the party-state controls and defines the boundaries of subnational diplomacy and leverages it to serve its own foreign policy.

The general principle is that the “party controls diplomacy” (党管 外交, dangguan waijiao) (Zhao, 2022). Despite the lack of a dedicated legal framework to regulate subnational diplomacy, local governments are embedded in the party-state top-down chain of control. At the local government level, the traditional Foreign Affairs Office and the Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Commission are entrusted with substantial responsibilities but guided by political orientations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce (Chen & Jian, 2009; Pietrasiak et al., 2018). Before a sister’s city agreement can be signed, it first has to be approved by the local People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), an organisation “under the firm leadership of the Communist Party of China [CCP] and the Chinese government” as described by its president Lin Song-tian 林松添 (CPAFFC, n.d.).

By that means, the party-state defines the boundaries in which para diplomacy can be carried out. It also issues more specific regulations and directives, with the “Special regulation on conducting foreign activities in China” (2003) being a case in point. The organisation of international events has to be agreed upon at both provincial and central levels through a “system of examination and approval” (Pietrasiak et al., 2018).

Furthermore, local governments are marshalled by the party-state to serve its foreign policy objectives. In line with the CCP’s “top priority”, para diplomacy is primarily oriented toward economic development. Local governments also play key roles in implementing aid policies, or the more recent ‘mask diplomacy’ (Grandi, 2020), and act as precious channels for the central government to improve its bilateral relationships. They have been committed to upholding the one-China principle: in 2020, Prague’s newly elected mayor sought to revise the “One China” policy clause in its sister city agreement with Beijing, leading the latter to put an end to their partnership. A few months later, the announcement of a new agreement between Prague and Taipei was condemned as a “blatant interference in China’s internal affairs” by Shanghai’s government, which in turn ceased its cooperation with the Czech capital (Shanghai Municipal Government, 2020).

A limited but undeniable room for manoeuvre

Still, within this seeming straitjacket, local governments managed to build up a limited but undeniable marge for manoeuvre, and even to challenge, to some extent, central policies.

First, scholars observed a growing vertical (from the central to local level) and horizontal (between local governments) fragmentation (Dickson, 2021). The pluralisation of actors involved following the reform and opening-up also complexifies the control and coordination of foreign activities by the centre. Guangdong and Hong Kong, for instance, have been in competition to “gain a comparative advantage […] in the expansion of external influences” (Liu & Song, 2021).

Wong (2018) also found that local governments gained influence upon national foreign policy in both its formulation and implementation. He observed three main strategies to do so:

- “Trailblazing policy”: putting forward new policies and advocating for Beijing to adopt them

- “Carpetbagging”: officially upholding the central directives but challenging them in the implementation

- “Resisting by refusing to adopt central directives” or voicing their disagreement.

The involvement of provinces in China’s salient foreign policy issues

Whether it is in the name of the national foreign policy they serve, or of the tiny room for manoeuvre they developed, local governments have been playing substantial roles in many of China’s key foreign policy issues, too often depicted as the sole result of a grand strategy orchestrated by the CCP central.

· The South China Sea

In the case of the disputed territories in the South China Sea, Wong (2018) shows that local governments have been “trailblazing” and “carpetbagging” the central policies. Playing on the national security rhetoric to charm Beijing, the government of Hainan, an insular province in the South China Sea, pushed successfully for the opening of touristic sites on the Paracels islands. The new infrastructures on these territories disputed by Mainland China, Taiwan, and Vietnam would yield tempting economic returns while further asserting China’s sovereignty. Similarly, the city government of Sansha in Hainan province carried out infrastructure projects on the Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by the Philippines. The move compromised Beijing’s desire to ease relations with Manila.

· China-Myanmar relations

Under Hu Jintao’s administration (2002-2012), the Yunnan provincial government lobbied for the centre to install pipelines in neighbouring Myanmar (Wong, 2018). Using the rationale of energy security, one of Beijing’s foreign policy priorities, it also aimed to make Yunnan China’s spearhead in oil refining. Completed in 2013, the project has been deleterious for Beijing: the oil supply is paltry and costly. It sparked dissatisfaction among local Burmese populations and workers and eventually caused tensions between the Burmese and Chinese governments.

· China-Africa relations

Local governments have played a major role in China’s relations with Africa. Since the 1990s, provinces have supported the State-owned enterprises they control and their ambitions in Africa. They have been fully engaged in the “Going out” policy (launched in 1999) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, launched in 2013). Local governments also implement the national aid policy (Chen & Jian, 2009), education exchanges or tourism partnerships like Zhejiang province did with Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Twinning agreements are the main form of partnerships through which Chinese local governments engage with African subnational governments and states (Lenz, 2023).


Although largely ignored among scholars and practitioners, provinces are key to understand China’s foreign policy. The article highlights three main reasons: they act like subordinates, partners, or agents of the central government (Lenz, 2023); can nonetheless challenge its policies; and have been involved in some of China’s key foreign policy issues. As such, provinces are acting neither independently nor simply as agents of the central government. Rather, I contend that their degree of agency varies from one issue to another, depending on their interest and their leaders' individual interest and career aspirations.

China’s unique central-local relationship allows for a peculiar practice of subnational diplomacy. Subnational diplomacy ‘with Chinese characteristics’.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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