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People-to-People Diplomacy: A Propeller of Major-Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era

People-to-People Diplomacy: A Propeller of Major-Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era

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By Wang Chao 

People-to-people diplomacy is an initiative put forward by the Communist Party of China (CPC) under the diplomatic work of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It aims at promoting friendship between peoples and advancing relations between countries, with distinct Chinese features developed in its long course of practice. The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), the first institute of New China dedicated to people-to-people diplomacy, was established under the proposal of the then Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, who also served as the institute’s honorary president. Founded on 15 December 1949, the same year as the People’s Republic, the CPIFA has worked on behalf of the Chinese people in creating a new chapter in China’s interaction with the rest of the world, and contributed to the remarkable progress in people-to-people diplomacy of New China over the past seven decades.

I. As an important part of New China’s diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy has played an important role in expanding China’s diplomatic space, promoting mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world and enhancing China’s international profile over the past 70 years. 

In the early years of New China, the pressing task of diplomacy was to win understanding and support of more countries and their peoples. Given the situation, Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai and other founding fathers of the People’s Republic decided that on the diplomatic front, we need to focus on the people, work with the people and place hopes on them. The CPIFA worked creatively with other similar organizations through people-to-people diplomacy to promote China’s official relations with other countries. These efforts greatly expanded New China’s diplomatic space by breaking diplomatic blockade, enhancing people-to-people interactions and mutual trust between China and other countries and gaining international support. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, the CPIFA actively supported and openly endorsed the Third World Countries’ struggle for independence, contributing to establishing and developing diplomatic ties between China and these countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, against the evolving international landscape, the CPIFA worked on people-to-people exchanges with the Western world, serving as bridges for the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and major Western countries. 

From 1952 to 1968, the CPIFA played an important role in the normalization of China-Japan relations by receiving over 100 Japanese delegations of renowned figures from all walks of life. It also helped pave the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France in 1964 by inviting former French Prime Minister Edgar Faure to China twice between 1957 and 1963 to discuss the matter with Chinese leaders. After President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the CPIFA, as one of the main channels for China-US high-level people-to-people exchanges, received the first visiting Speaker of the US House of Representatives, majority leader of the Senate, governor and Chief Justice, helping lay the foundation for the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the US. As the then Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi rightly pointed out, China’s people-to-people diplomacy was conducted via both governmental and non-governmental channels. The flexible combination of the two constituted people-to-people diplomacy, which became the most distinguished feature of China’s diplomatic work. 

After the introduction of reform and opening up, China’s external exchanges grew rapidly in all fields, ushering in a new historical period for people-to-people diplomacy. As an important part of the overall diplomatic work, people-to-people diplomacy helped lay down the fundamental framework for the endeavor to consolidate popular support for state-to-state relations and create a peaceful and stable international environment for domestic development. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, in particular, under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, the major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics has made headway on all fronts with more distinct Chinese features, making new and important contribution to China’s development and world peace. Guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, the CPIFA stays committed to making friends for the country. It has further deepened exchanges with world-renowned statesmen, parliaments, think tanks and media organizations, and actively conducted Track II dialogues and public diplomacy, bringing into full play the unique role of people-to-people diplomacy in supplementing overall diplomacy, enhancing mutual understanding and promoting practical cooperation.

Expanding the network of our friends by making as many friends as possible. The CPIFA has received more statesmen and eminent figures from across the world than any other institutes of similar nature, and maintained long-standing friendship with many of them. As China’s door opens wider to the outside world, the CPIFA, while staying in close contact with old friends, has made new friends with political figures, members of parliament, scholars and eminent people from the US, Europe, major emerging countries and neighboring and developing ones. We also pay much attention to the younger generation, and have, in recent years, engaged with global youth elites. We have co-hosted regular young leaders fora with the US, Germany, France and Austria, invited delegations of young politicians from Poland and the Republic of Korea to China, and sent Chinese youth delegations to Africa. Youth exchanges, with diverse topics and colorful programs, have deepened mutual understanding and friendship between the two sides and injected new dynamism to people-to-people diplomacy. 

Enhancing mutual trust and cooperation through dialogue and exchanges. Track II mechanism has been an important means for the institute to conduct dialogue and exchange, deepen mutual understanding, mutual trust and help promote bilateral relationship with other countries. Under the framework of Track II, the CPIFA had in-depth dialogue with members of American Democratic and Republican Parties on how to ensure sustainable, sound and steady growth of China-US relations. We conducted candid exchanges with Japanese people in and out of the government on how to improve and grow China-Japan relations. Exchanges were also carried out with our neighboring countries such as the ROK, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as central and eastern European and Latin American countries. In-depth discussions on furthering China-Europe mutual trust and practical cooperation were conducted with Germany, France and other European countries. 

Telling the China story by engaging in public diplomacy. China has attracted increasing attention of the international community with its growing comprehensive strength and global influence. The CPIFA has presented the China story and China’s path via both bilateral and multilateral platforms, contributing to the endeavor of building a community with a shared future for mankind. The institute and the Beijing municipal government co-hosted the first and second conferences of the CICA Non-Governmental Forum in 2015 and 2017 respectively, advocating the new security vision and CICA approach. The three Understanding China International Conferences, which the institute co-hosted with China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy in 2013, 2015 and 2018, aimed at facilitating a deeper international understanding of China’s path. The World Peace Forum, co-hosted with Tsinghua University, provided an important platform for international discussion on global security issues. We have also actively supported and taken part in major international fora such as the World Internet Conference, the Eco Forum Global Annual Conference in Guiyang, the Kubuqi International Desert Forum and the Taihu World Cultural Forum. We worked with the Azerbaijani Nizami Ganjavi International Center (NGIC) in co-hosting a high-level meeting themed on “Development of China, Opportunities for the World”. These efforts helped facilitate China’s external exchanges and enhance China’s voice worldwide. Moreover, in recent years, the CPIFA has invited more media delegations from North America, Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Africa to China to learn first hand about China’s development. Through their reports, more people around the world will be able to know what China is really like. 

Playing a unique role in China’s overall diplomacy. As a useful supplement to official diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy has a unique role to play when state-to-state relations encounter problems. In the late 1980s when China’s relations with the Western world were at a low ebb, the CPIFA organized a mayors’ delegation headed by Zhu Rongji, the then mayor of Shanghai, to a dozen of large- and medium-sized cities in the US in July 1990, which served as a boost to the improvement of China-US relations. At the end of 2008, when China-France relations faced some setbacks, the CPIFA sent a delegation to France during the Spring Festival in 2009 for the events marking the 45th anniversary of the diplomatic ties, and invited former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to visit China, facilitating the efforts to navigate the difficulties in bilateral ties. The latest case has been the complex situation in China-US relations. The CPIFA has stepped up efforts to engage with people of all sectors in the US to have in-depth discussions on how to work for the stable growth of this relationship. 

Over the past 70 years, the CPIFA has stayed true to its founding purposes and worked relentlessly. Over the past seven decades, the CPIFA has received more than 30,000 visitors of over 4,000 foreign political, parliamentary, think tank and media delegations. It has maintained long-standing contact with renowned statesmen such as Helmut Schmidt, Edward Heath, Henry Kissinger, Jacques Chirac, Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Kevin Rudd, Shaukat Aziz, Yukio Hatoyama, Goh Chok Tong, Hamid Karzai, Ernesto Zedillo and Olusegun Obasanjo. Over 20 dialogue mechanisms have been regularly conducted with institutes in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the ROK, India, Singapore and Australia. People-to-people diplomacy has increasingly served as an important channel and platform that facilitates steady growth of state-to-state relations, friendship between peoples, practical cooperation among countries and dialogue between civilizations. Going forward, it will shoulder new tasks and make new achievements, contributing to China’s reform, development, stability and overall diplomacy. 

II. Reflecting on the past helps one better see the future. Looking back, the CPIFA has achieved hard-won results in people-to-people diplomacy over the past 70 years. Its valuable experience merits a thorough review.

First, people-to-people diplomacy complements and facilitates non-governmental diplomacy. It played an important and unique role in the early years of New China, not only as a supplement to the latter but as a trailblazer. Serving the interests of the people, it explored ways of external exchanges, together with the Party and the government, for New China’s diplomacy. Since China’s reform and opening up, people-to-people diplomacy has grown in both breadth and depth in political, economic, cultural and other areas to meet the needs of national development, providing firm support for China’s overall diplomacy. As an initiative with Chinese characteristics, it takes diverse forms, opens up multiple channels, and covers a wide range of areas. With these advantages, it will play an even greater role in supplementing and promoting diplomacy at the official level.

Second, people-to-people diplomacy is based on friendship between peoples. Over the past seven decades, people-to-people diplomacy, expanding to more areas and taking on new forms, has always remained true to its mission. As President Xi Jinping says: “Friendship, which derives from close ties between peoples, holds the key to sound state-to-state relations”. The very nature of people-to-people diplomacy is, in the final analysis, about forging friendship between peoples. Making as many as friends as possible, it enhances affinity, mutual trust, friendship and cooperation between peoples, cements popular support for state-to-state relations and helps the world better understand China. 

Third, people-to-people diplomacy requires resilience and long-term dedication. As President Xi points out, friendship between peoples underpins world peace and development. People-to-people diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, which focuses on the people, needs patient and resilient efforts. The power of friendship between peoples transcends national borders, time, space and civilizations. In the face of the fluid international situation, the more difficulties countries encounter in their relations, the more important people-to-people diplomacy is as an anchor and relief valve to improve relations between governments, promote common prosperity and safeguard world peace. Capable of engaging the mainstream society and general public of foreign countries more directly and broadly, it can be more effective in presenting China’s political and economic standing and cultural appeal, thus fostering a more favorable public opinion of China across the world.

Fourth, people-to-people diplomacy must keep pace with the times and break new grounds. Over the years, however different the circumstances have been, people-to-people diplomacy, while remaining true to its mission of forging friendship, has explored new ways and expanded to new areas in response to new developments. It has gained international support for China’s diplomacy, forged a favorable global environment for exchanges between China and other countries, and contributed greatly to presenting China’s views and promoting a community with a shared future for mankind. As China rolls out its major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era and in light of new conditions, tasks and requirements, people-to-people diplomacy must always keep pace with the times to maintain its vigor and vitality. 

III. With the world undergoing changes unseen in a century, people-to-people diplomacy has embarked on a new journey in pursuit of a community with a share future for mankind. Adapting to new changes with new initiatives, people-to-people diplomacy is opening a new chapter of development in the new era. 

First, cementing public support as part of the overall diplomacy to forge a new type of international relations. People-to-people diplomacy is centered around people. As more parties get to play their role in diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy will have the strong support of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. To reach out to foreign statesmen, think tanks, scholars, media, youth, and entrepreneurs, people-to-people diplomacy needs to tap into its advantages in terms of flexibility, diverse forms, multiple channels and wide coverage to enhance exchanges and communication for mutual understanding, friendship and mutual trust. It needs to trickle down to things of fundamental and long-term importance, play its role as lubricant for state-to-state relations, and cultivate friendship among peoples. 

Second, staying committed to its mission and responsibilities to safeguard national interests. Safeguarding sovereignty, security and development interests of the country is the ultimate goal in developing relations with the rest of the world. China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, and at the same time, is resolute in safeguarding national and people’s interests. People-to-people diplomacy must stand its ground and leverage its unique advantages and resources to explore new ways and means of safeguarding national interests, never flinch from any moves that undermine national interests, and create favorable external conditions for China’s development.  

Third, building China’s image by sharing its stories globally in innovative ways. China is a country with profound traditions and a rich culture. Having gone through arduous revolutions and nation-building in modern times, it is now striving for progress through reform and opening up. This is a journey the global community needs to know in order to understand China’s rise from misery to splendor and the achievements it has scored one after another. More importantly, it is an inexhaustible source of great value for people-to-people diplomacy. In the new era, China’s people-to-people diplomacy needs to conduct external exchanges more actively, tell stories about China in a language understandable to foreign friends, communicate China’s messages and let the world know the full picture of a real China, including its characters, style and confidence as a responsible major country.  

Fourth, building platforms for cooperation with the rest of the world. As China has growing convergence of interests with the rest of the world and gets increasingly integrated into the international system, its future is more closely connected with that of the world. President Xi has solemnly declared on multiple occasions that China’s door will only open wider. China pursues a win-win strategy of opening up, advocates multilateral cooperation and opposes trade protectionism. Its Belt and Road Initiative not only meets its needs of opening up wider and deeper but also echoes the aspirations of the majority of countries. People-to-people diplomacy, focusing on the overarching goal of national development, should build platforms and bridges for exchanges to better serve reform, opening up and high-quality development of the country and promote win-win cooperation between China and other countries. 

Fifth, playing a part in global governance for building a community with a shared future for mankind. China is the world’s second largest economy and the largest developing country. As such, China’s people-to-people diplomacy needs to take an active part in multilateral arenas to jointly explore ways to tackle global challenges and elaborate on China’s visions and input. It should help forge greater synergy between China’s peace and stability and those of the world, between China’s development and prosperity and the common interests of all countries, and between the Chinese Dream and the common aspirations of all peoples for a better life. It should play its role in presenting China’s views, perspectives and resolve to live up to its responsibilities in building a community with a shared future for mankind.

People-to-people diplomacy is a proven practice to implement major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics and an integral part of China’s overall diplomacy. The whole world can be the stage for people-to-people diplomacy. President Xi stresses that the CPC strives for both the well-being of the Chinese people and human progress, and that making new and greater contribution for mankind is the Party’s abiding mission. Over the past seven decades, the CPIFA has stayed committed to its mission of making friends for China and building friendships across the world. Its relentless effort to carry out people-to-people diplomacy has registered fruitful results. Going forward, under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, China’s people-to-people diplomacy will march toward even greater success with strong vitality, and contribute more to achieving the two centenary goals and the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.

Wang Chao is President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA).