Speech at the Seminar on New China’s People-to-People Diplomacy

By Li Xiaolin

On behalf of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), I wish to warmly congratulate the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) on its 70th anniversary and pay our highest respect to all the colleagues of the institute.

It is quite fitting, on the important occasion of its 70th anniversary, for the CPIFA to host the Seminar on New China’s People-to-People Diplomacy and explore the subject of people-to-people diplomacy and public diplomacy. It allows us to review the past, take stock of what has been achieved, better prepare for the opportunities and challenges lying ahead, and find the best way to put into practice the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy to build ever-stronger public support for China’s friendship with other countries. The CPIFA and the CPAFFC have been active players in people-to-people diplomacy since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Like twin stars, we have been lighting up the way for Chinese and foreign publics to get to know each other and become friends. As a veteran in this field, I wish to share with you some of my thoughts. 

People-to-people diplomacy, as a theory and a practice, reflects the theory of the Chinese Communist Party on mass line and united front. It is an important part of the overall diplomacy of the PRC and embodies the doctrine of the Party to put people at the center. 

In its revolutionary days when the CPC was working in Yan’an, the Party leadership, such as Comrade Mao Zedong and Comrade Zhou Enlai, personally organized, directed and participated in people-to-people diplomatic events. As a result, foreigners like Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, Anna Louise Strong, and Rewi Alley sympathized with, supported, and explained the cause of the CPC to the world. 

The Chinese People's Committee for World Peace (Peace Committee) on 2 October 1949, one day after the People’s Republic of China was founded, with Mr. Guo Moruo as the President; a number of outstanding personnel in China’s diplomatic community worked in the committee to build people-to-people ties with the rest of the world. The CPIFA and CPAFFC were later created following the instructions of the CPC Central Committee. We were tasked to be one step ahead of official diplomacy and create a favorable environment for official diplomatic relations. Our hard work delivered growing international recognition of and international public support for the New China. 

As China began the reform and opening-up program, it gradually built diplomatic relations with almost all countries in the world. Yet the role of people-to-people diplomacy is not diminished, but further strengthened. A great number of other similar institutes blossomed in the country. Together, we carried out diverse, rich and fruitful activities, making a real difference in increasing international knowledge about and goodwill towards China and helping the Chinese know and learn from their foreign friends. 

Now, we are in a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The party and state leadership value our role and commend our achievements. In 2012, then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping said this during a meeting with members of CPAFFC executive board, “People-to-people diplomacy will only grow stronger, not weaker.” At the 60th anniversary of the CPAFFC in 2014, President Xi made an important statement, in which he recognized the importance of people-to-people diplomacy in China’s overall diplomatic work and asked the CPAFFC to continue to spearhead people-to-people diplomacy towards the goal of developing friendship between peoples, building bridges for state-to-state relations, and encouraging international cooperation. 

It has been 45 years since I joined the CPAFFC in 1975 upon graduation from college. The most important thing I learned from my experience is this: people-to-people diplomacy can only thrive when it is an integral part of the overall diplomacy. President Xi rightly noted, as we move further and deeper in our career, we must be better able to think in a dialectic manner. A materialistic and dialectic approach to analyze and solve problems is the key to our continued progress in this new era. In line with the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, I believe we need to better apply dialectic thinking in the following areas:

First, the relationship between the Party’s leadership and public involvement. 

Our success in the past 70 years has only been possible with the leadership of the Party. Going forward, we must bear this in mind; strengthen the consciousness of the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and keep in alignment; enhance our confidence in the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics; and uphold the authority of and centralized, unified leadership of the Central Committee and the core position of General Secretary Xi Jinping. This is our essential political guarantee. The Party, at the fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee, made the decision to deepen reform of the system and mechanism related to foreign relations; lay out a master plan for the foreign engagement activities of various actors, including the People’s Congresses, governments at all levels, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the military, local governments, and public organizations; and encourage them to each play their own part and conduct activities. In this process, maintaining diversity and flexibility of people-to-people diplomacy will be important. 

Second, the relationship between justice and interests. 
Building a community with a shared future for mankind is at the center of the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy and China’s overarching goal in diplomacy in the new era. President Xi stressed this point on multiple occasions, citing such ancient Chinese sayings as “a man of integrity makes it a principle to uphold justice” and “Grabbing fortune and power by unjust means is far below me”. When you put it in a long-term perspective, justice and interests are often inseparable; helping another country can be not only beneficial to the one receiving it, but also rewarding for the one giving it. In people-to-people diplomacy, we must also value friendship and justice. Friendship may begin with mutual interests, but it can only sustain on the basis of goodwill and justice. Understanding the truth of this a long time ago, our forefathers said, “Relations built on interests only last as long as the interests do; relations built around power dissipate when power collapses.” Real friends are never won over a couple of drinks, but only with years or even decades of mutual support. President Xi’s words about taking into account both interests and justice, putting justice first, and giving up interests for justice when necessary, are important to remember as we seek to build more friendship in the new era. 

Third, the relationship between official and unofficial interactions. 
In our field of work, the people is at the center. We must be able to understand what they want, connect with them, and deliver for them. For quite some time, our guests from abroad tend to limit themselves to seeing the big cities, talking to government officials, and sitting in conference rooms. Not many visited the rural areas and local communities and engaged the ordinary Chinese. This is not helpful when we are trying to tell a real story about China and share China’s experience. The CPAFFC has been acting on some new ideas in recent years. In addition to official meetings, we made sure our programs always included visits to high-tech parks, townships and villages, factories, communities, businesses, and higher education institutions. There, our guests can see how government policies are being translated into action, listen to the voices of the ordinary Chinese, and witness the dedication of our Party members. Then they can come to their own conclusions whether China’s system, theory, and path are correct and great. It turns out these experiences and interactions are much more fun and informative than presentations in a meeting room. As we do this, we keep in contact with our old friends and make new friends. 

Fourth, relationship between principle and flexibility. 

President Xi observes that our world is undergoing changes unseen before in a century. In this context, our party is engaging in a great struggle, great project, and great cause, and working for a great dream. We have a lot to do to continue reform and develop the country while maintaining its stability. In front of us are rare opportunities and significant risks and tests. To realize the goals set by the Party, we must build our own capacity and stand up for our principles. 

What is happening in international relations also makes it clear that people-to-people diplomacy will face more daunting challenges. Our great struggle requires courage, strategies, and tactics, as instructed by President Xi. Struggle is not simply defeating the other side; it is an art that can build the widest possible circle of friends while isolating the very few enemies. On issues of China’s core interests and fundamental principles, we must be brave to struggle for upholding our principles; on other issues, we may also seek common ground and shelve differences and show flexibility in our approach. Those who speak in support of us are friends; those who disagree with us and speak truthfully about their minds are people we shall make friends. The ability to make real friends is the charm of people-to-people diplomacy. 

According to President Xi, China must practice its own major-country diplomacy. To do this, we must learn from our past practices, enrich and evolve our understanding of diplomatic work, and stamp it with China’s own style and features. People-to-people diplomacy is one such unique feature developed in the past 70 years. In this new era, the CPAFFC will continue to work hand in hand with the CPIFA to combine our respective strength for a bigger impact. Together, we will develop a better understanding of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy and implement it on the ground, enhance our dialectic thinking, adapt to the changing realities, and address new challenges. I am confident we will be able to cooperate hand in hand and jointly contribute to China’s overall diplomacy. 

Li Xiaolin is President of Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC).