The Overseas Schools Training China’s Next Generation of Leaders
Tasked with governing a diverse, contentious nation of 1.4 billion, the Chinese government has long understood the value of cultivating dedicated, well-trained, and qualified cadres capable of keeping the peace. To that end, it has developed a comprehensive cadre training system ranging from policy courses offered by domestic universities to national executive leadership academies and dedicated party schools for political and ideological education.
Parallel to these institutions, but no less important, are the CPC’s overseas training courses. There, carefully vetted political elites can learn state-of-the-art governance methods and other skills at some of the top learning institutes in the world.
The history of sending political elites for finishing courses abroad predates the CPC. The Qing dynasty’s repeated humiliations at the hands of foreign powers during the 19th century forced the imperial court to acknowledge the necessity of “mastering the barbarians’ techniques in order to resist them,” as one top official put it. The imperial court would send tens of thousands of students abroad over the ensuing years.
After the dynasty’s collapse in 1911, China was wracked by decades of civil war and revolution. If anything, this turmoil heightened the need for outside expertise. One of the most well-known institutes for elite education in this period was the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. Established by the Communist International in 1921, it drew revolutionaries and elites from around the world to Moscow, including the son of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and the future paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CPC relied heavily on the Soviet Union for training and dispatched a large number of promising cadres to the USSR to study that country’s industrial development, planned economy, and social control techniques. From 1951 to 1963, around 10,000 young cadres, senior military officers, and technocrats studied in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, most notably Deng Xiaoping’s successor, Jiang Zemin.
These programs functionally ceased to exist after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution beginning in the 1960s. When Deng restarted overseas trainings in the early 1980s, they looked very different from the Communist technical trainings of the early Mao era. In line with Deng’s “reform and opening-up” policy, the overseas cadre trainings of the ’80s were bent on “using the intellectual resources of other countries and opening wider to the outside world” — primarily the West.
The number of these courses grew after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. In 2005, the CPC reemphasized its commitment to cadre training, calling it “a guiding, fundamental, and strategic endeavor to safeguard the socialist system with Chinese characteristics and to strengthen party building.”
Since then, tens of thousands of Chinese cadres have attended midcareer training programs offered by well-known schools around the world, including Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and the National University of Singapore. Their carefully vetted attendees hail from a wide range of party organizations, government agencies, state-owned enterprises, state media outlets, government-sponsored think tanks, and mass organizations and take courses covering everything from managerial skills to the West’s political institutions, legal systems, and philosophies of governance.
Multiple criteria are applied in selecting a training site. According to official guidelines, qualified institutions should possess the following features: a sound financial condition and legal status, a good reputation, experience in training officials, an extensive network for arranging extracurricular activities, and a willingness to forgo attaching political strings to the training process.
Plenty of schools and other training institutions are willing and able to meet these requirements: Between 1999 and 2016, the total number of overseas cadre training institutes increased from 144 to 243, led by the United States, Australia, Germany, and Great Britain, as well as Japan and Singapore. It’s not all Western or “first world” sites: Trainings are also carried out in developing countries with a track record of success in certain areas, such as the computer industry in India, agricultural development in Peru, or animal husbandry in Argentina.
Course content is generally negotiated between host institutions and organizing agencies in China under the supervision of the central government. The courses can be divided into two types: general administrative trainings — which are generally longer-term — and shorter thematic trainings. For instance, officials from the National Auditing Office regularly attend training courses in Australia, and since 2002, more than 635 cadres selected by the National Coal Mine Safety Administration have been sent to Japan for a short-term program on preventing mine accidents. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, several groups of Chinese police officers were dispatched to the United Kingdom and Germany to learn policing practices.
Applicants for overseas trainings are primarily selected on the basis of merit. After either applying for a program oneself or being recommended by one’s place of work, cadres must undergo a long and comprehensive vetting process, including a pre-selection check, written and oral exams, and final inspection. These checks include, but are not restricted to, candidates’ age and education, work experience, professional responsibilities, English proficiency, and potential for promotion.
According to a survey of students at a “mayor class” run by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, more than half of the students were selected through a competitive process.
In the reform era, the CPC has relied heavily on the competency and ability of its political elites to steer economic development, maintain social stability, and safeguard regime security. In this context, its commitment to overseas training is substantive rather than symbolic. Trainees appreciate the problem-solving focus of overseas training sites: a refreshing change of pace from the dry theoretical debates that can dominate domestic curricula. Party leaders, meanwhile, truly believe in the value of these trainings as they nurture the next generation of political elites with the skills and expertise needed to govern an increasingly diverse society.
This remains true even in the context of strained relations between China and the U.S., one of the main sites of cadre training over the years. Whether or not the two countries can continue their high-level educational exchanges, the CPC will continue to send elites abroad to learn from the best teachers around the world. And perhaps one day, it will attract more trainees of its own.
This article was co-authored by Xin Ge, an assistant professor of political science at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Sixth Tone)