Written by Yiyi Chen.

In a previous paper, I made the observation that today’s Chinese Communist Party central government makes its foreign policy decisions transparently, predictably and rationally. This results from the CCP’s willingness to “pay a price for pride” on behalf of the entire nation, whose shared historical memory is of a century of humiliation by imperial powers.[1] The price to pay includes an economic price – for example, the loss of economic interest by the State Owned Enterprises, which are indirectly owned by the CCP. The most relevant example of today is the government’s stance regarding the South China Sea Island disputes with its neighbours. The CCP knows only too well that territorial integrity is an issue which undoubtedly garners the support of the Chinese people, playing on a common psychological motivation of not wanting to lose another inch of territory to external powers. Thus demonising the US, as opposed to China’s smaller neighbours, is crucial to this internal propaganda.

For over two thousand years, China had a tradition of selecting talent through imperial examination – the equivalent to today’s college entrance exam. This sophisticated and time-honoured meritocratic tradition continued in the Chinese Empire for several thousand years, due to the successful emphasis on meticulous documentation by civil servants, as well as structured hierarchical checks and balances to ensure all levels of cadres were loyal to but one person: the imperial emperor. The current CCP management apparatus has inherited this tradition, despite the turmoil caused by the denial of the system’s value, spanning from the New Culture Movement of 1919 to the Cultural Revolution ending in 1976.

To elaborate further, I quote myself from the previously mentioned article (with necessary omissions):

Overall, the decision-making process that produces China’s foreign policies is efficient, and more often than not, based on policy suggestions and reports generated by a system of research entities, or think tanks. The selection process of what is considered is mostly merit-based. Extensive discussions are conducted when major disagreements exist, leading to either agreement among top leaders, or voting among them to compromise as a last resort. Variations exist only because of relatively superficial differences in the styles of governance employed by acting leaders. For example, the governing styles of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are very different from each other, but the mechanisms underlying either of them are more or less the same because of how systemically and culturally entrenched they are.

Another reason for describing China’s decision-making process as transparent is its willingness to gather feedback from the governments and important media sources of western powers, particularly the US, to gauge the potential consequences of future decisions. For example, the Party typically uses its contacts in Hong Kong media to leak potentially important future decisions to western countries whose reactions are gauged by the leadership for possible consequences if the decisions were actually made later. Hong Kong was originally kept as it was by Mao Zedong in the late 1940s to be a channel for much needed western goods and products, as well as a window/backdoor for Sino-Western communications. Today, Hong Kong is no longer that important for its economics and trade, but it is increasingly important for its position as a quasi-free media harbor that acts as a test field for limited political reforms in the mainland.

 The Xinhua News Agency, together with all the information sections of Chinese diplomatic missions, also act as eyes and ears for the Party to gather feedback on any foreign policy decisions China makes. The process is fairly efficient compared to other non-democratic nations in the world.[2] The executive branch of China’s foreign relations includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, various track II diplomacy entities that are comparable to western NGOs on the surface but are still run by the inner circle of the second generation revolutionaries that founded the CCP… The foundation of the CCP diplomatic core team was built by the first CCP Premier Zhou Enlai. He himself received both traditional education preparing for the imperial examination and modern education preparing him to continue his later studies in Japan and France. In today’s system, we can still observe the legacy of the Keju system working well.

There are two elements of the Keju system that are crucial in terms of the policy-making process. The first is to find and elect the best talent from the mass population through a multi-year multi-exam system, within different locations of the empire, but whilst situating the most elaborate and difficult exams in the capital of the empire. Since these talents are assessed on the basis of capability (and irrespective of family background and lineage) in areas such as typing, problem-solving, contemporary politics, and traditional Chinese classics, the finalists’ dialectical and analytical skills are considered to be the finest available.

The second element is that the ‘outstanding scholars’ selected will serve as the civil servants running the empire. By the time they begin their first official position, they will have extensive writing experience, with exceptional skills in logical deduction. And of course, they will gain further experience in problem solving skills during the course of their career. The following explains how this works in today’s system – and shows that there is not much difference, in essence, from the system of many hundreds of years ago in dynastic China.

The CCP … managed foreign relations using a system called “democracy first, centralized decisions later.” In it, all concerned parties can express their views fully, then submit their suggestions in writing while conforming to a fixed succinct style, which are then passed along an upward chain of officials. Since almost all of the officials have been promoted from base level management roles through merit-based systems, they themselves are very much qualified to judge the quality of any ideas and proposals made in these documents and policy papers. The documents would gather comments by all layers of officials along its path, beginning with those at lower levels and ending with their superiors. In this system, even if one or two officials along the chain failed to fairly judge the quality of the policy proposal, the rest (sometimes a dozen or more) would catch their lapses in judgment and make up for it through the sheer number of qualified candidates involved weighing in on any issue. The documents would stop at a level fitting the suggestions’ level of importance, where a final decision was made on whether it in its present form should be adopted. If the suggestion was accepted, the most senior official deciding that, most likely the last to view and comment on the document as well, would provide information and directions outlining who should take care of the implementation, and what type of resources should be allotted to it.

Depending on the matter’s importance, the document could reach all the way to the desk of the President. When he could make a decision call, he would, and on hard to decide issues, he would bring the document to the Standing Committee of the CCP Political Bureau, where either full agreement needed to be reached, or a vote was called to decide upon the issue. According to scholars who know the process well, in terms of foreign relations decisions, calling for a vote among these top seven (last term was nine) leaders has been extremely rare, again reflecting consensus among top leaders regarding China’s own territorial sovereignty and relationship with foreign countries and international organizations. This is due to how foundational the Price for Pride rationale is within all aspects of the policy-making apparatus. The whole process for every significant decision is well documented, each layer of commentators expected to take their share of responsibility for any documents bearing their comments and signatures.

Since the one-party regime is here to stay for the foreseeable future, understanding the characteristics of China’s foreign policy decisions paves the way for better cooperation between the major players and China. For those who are looking to influence China’s foreign policy decision making, working with relevant think tanks to establish sound and well-argued sound policy suggestions to facilitate progression within the merit-based selection process is probably the most effective approach to take.

Yiyi Chen is Director of the Institute for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Peking University. Image credit: CC by See ming-Lee/Flickr.


[1] To be published by Middle East Policy, Summer, 2015. The paper was adapted from a lecture draft given at the Brookings Institute closed door workshop in February 2014.

[2] On May 27, 2015, in a lecture hall in Shanghai Jiao Tong University, retired Ambassador Lu Yonghua elaborated on the functions of every Chinese diplomatic mission’s structure and their crucial role in collecting information from the local sources, as a legacy directly from Zhou Enlai’s design.