The new Baise Executive Leadership Academy – which looks like a five-star resort nestled in the green hills of the remote Guangxi region – may not be well-known abroad, but it aspires to be part of Beijing’s strategy of exporting its development model, in this case by training foreign government officials.
Launched 18 months ago by the government of the southern region, the school has already trained 437 senior government delegates, most of them from neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar – all funded by the Chinese side.
The number of overseas trainees is tiny compared with the 16,000 Chinese officials who received training at the academy. About an hour’s drive from the border with Vietnam, it is not shy about its ambition of influencing decision-makers in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member countries.
The school, called Baise Cadre Academy in Chinese, has developed a training programme for prospective Asean trainees from day one, the purpose of which is to influence officials from Asean countries and help them “to understand China’s governance and economic development model”, Liu Xuanqi, deputy dean of the institute, told a group of journalists during a government-organised tour.
“After being trained here and communicating with each other, consensus and understanding can be reached for both sides,” Liu said. “It would definitely be helpful for the trainees when they go back to their official posts [in their own countries].”
Liu said the training programme for Asean member countries’ officials usually lasts 10 days and covers topics such as the operations of Chinese Communist Party committees and the reform and opening up of China.
According to the academy’s website, training for Asean trainees also includes subjects such as how to “guide public opinion” online when there are emergencies, and how to alleviate poverty in a “targeted” way.
There’s also a bit of history: a course on Ho Chi Minh and Guangxi offers an introduction to the former Vietnamese leader’s presence in the Chinese region. Trainees are also shown local villages, communities, plants and industrial parks, according to the academy.
The school, under the direct control of the Guangxi Communist Party’s personnel unit, is riding the wave of Beijing’s soft power push, especially in developing countries, despite rising scrutiny of Chinese influence in liberal democratic countries from Australia to the United States.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a party conference last October that China’s growth model, a combination of one-party rule and controlled market economy, has offered a “whole new option” to those developing countries, sending a message that he believes China’s recipe of economic development, political illiberalism and social control can rival the “free market and liberal democracy” model.
China is inviting delegates from other countries, especially those aligned with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, to learn from China’s experiences, with Beijing often footing the bill.
From Africa alone, China has trained more than 160,000 engineers, doctors and government officials, according to China’s official data.
Chinese schools, institutions and government agencies are rolling out various training sessions for trainees from abroad. The Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, for instance, has a special training centre for police and law enforcement officers from regional intergovernmental organisation the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and Xi said at the SCO’s summit last month that over the next three years China would train 2,000 police and judges for its member countries.
The academy in Baise is a newcomer with an Asean focus, especially neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, which share a similar political structure to China.
Hu Xingdou, an independent economist in Beijing, said the endgame of China in training foreign government officials might be expanding its political and economic influence abroad, but the effect also depends on how the trainees absorb what they are taught in China.
“On the one hand, the training would help those foreign officials’ connection with China. It would be positive for promoting China’s Belt and Road projects,” Hu said.
“On the other hand, it may strengthen the negative image around the world of Chinese authoritarian capitalism.”
China itself has sent thousands of civil servants to study overseas, notably at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
As its economic power grows, China is now seeking to export a “China wisdom” and “China solution”.
Liu said the academy will tailor training programmes to meet different demands. For the class for Laos officials from different government departments, the academy has organised tours to rural areas to show them how the Communist Party enhances its grass-roots presence, and to factories to show them how cars and high-speed locomotives are made there, Liu said.
Studying “the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China” – which took place last October and launched the new guiding ideology Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era – was also arranged for attendees, Liu said.
Perhaps it is too early to assess the lasting impact of the classrooms in Baise, Guangxi. The region is trying hard to boost economic integration with its Southeast Asian neighbours and to serve as China’s “bridgehead” into Indochina.
Most of the trainees are senior local government officials on the other side of the China border – the ones Guangxi needs to work with closely to push cross-border economic plans forward – but the institute would not release a list of the foreign officials being trained there.
Be Van Hung, deputy director of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s organisation department for Cao Bang province on the Chinese border, came to Baise for training in May along with 39 other Vietnamese officials.
He was quoted by Guangxi Television as saying that the training has “significant value for our government officials and our economic development in rural regions”.