One party, two countries?
On 1 July 2021, Beijing will be marking the centennial of the establishment of the Communist Party of China (CPC) amidst signs that cooperation with Nepal’s communist parties may gain momentum in future.
While China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs handles state-to-state relations, the International Department of the CPC manages relationships with fraternal parties in other countries, and there have been some high profile interactions with Nepal’s communist parties.
There had been a record of 114 political visits and 15 party exchanges between Chinese and Nepali communist leaders between 2000-2017, the highest number among any country in South and Central Asia. After Nepal signed the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) pact in 2017, the level of exchanges became even more visible.
China had made no secret of preferring to deal with a single communist party in Nepal, and is thought to have encouraged the formation of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) by uniting the UML and the Maoist-Centre in 2018, and the formation of a strong majority government.
And when a power struggle between Prime Minister K P Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal threatened the NCP’s unity last year, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hour Yanqi actively, and quite openly, lobbied to prevent a break-up.
The two ruling parties, NCP and the CPC, signed an MoU in 2019 to establish fraternal relations, and this allowed smoother high-level exchanges and visits. Prior to President Xi’s official visit to Nepal in October 2019, the CPC conducted a session on ‘Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ for 200 NCP leaders in Kathmandu.
This raised eyebrows because it was a direct display of preference by one country’s ruling party to the ruling party in a neighbouring country, ignoring other political parties like the opposition Nepali Congress, with which the NCP only possesses a ‘sisterhood’ relationship.
This visibility is the result of an increased level of engagement for sustaining Sino-Nepal cooperation. With both CPC and NCP (till recently) being ruling parties, the party-to-party relationship helped to leverage dialogue with influential political actors that can be decisive in matters of economic cooperation and in geostrategic considerations.
China remains Nepal’s main partner in foreign direct investment, and opening up new markets for Chinese goods is an important economic agenda to help keep its indebted state-owned enterprises (SOEs) afloat.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the CPC, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal recently penned an article for World Socialism Studies (世界社会主义研究) WeChat page highlighting party-to-party relations between Nepal and China as an important factor ‘to coordinate development strategies of two countries, promote and facilitate the launch of major infrastructure projects’.
At the same time, high-level CPC visits to help NCP to settle its internal dispute last year showed China’s strong preference for the ruling party’s stability. This not only has strengthened party ties, but also removed constraints due to diplomatic protocol – serving as a ‘fast track’ for CPC leaders to promote its economic interests in Nepal.
The CPC and NCP tie-up, although being party-to-party, therefore formed an integral part of larger bilateral ties between two countries. This is despite the CPC mandating contact with non-Communist parties as well, and fostering good working relations with all parties.
After training NCP leaders on Xi Jinping Thought, China held a virtual conference with Nepal’s major parties for the first time in October 2020. Unlike the CPC-NCP ideology training, the session was mostly to ‘seek commitment from Nepali political parties’ on the Trans-Himalaya Multidimensional Connectivity Network.
Similarly, a virtual meeting hosted by the CPC International Department in May on jointly combatting Covid-19 through inter-party channels preceded China’s announcement of a further grant of 1 million doses. That meeting included leaders of both the UML and Maoist Centre, the Nepali Congress, the Janata Samajbadi Party, and others.
The CCP started as a small meeting between 53 students and journalists in the French quarter of Shanghai in 1921, and 100 years later has gone on to become the most dominant political party in the world.
The transition from a revolutionary party to a ruling party, then the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and now its emergence as a world economic power has been shepherded by the CCP and leaders like Mao and Deng Xiaoping.
With more than 90 million members, the CPC remains the absolute power and is at the center of all Chinese politics and economy. The party controls and coordinates all aspects of government, its people’s congress, and foreign affairs matters.
Past record shows that the CPC remains very selective in choosing its partners and seeks to enhance relations with parties ‘who have been in power in the past or can be expected to attain power in the future’. The important takeaway from such engagements is that it allows the CPC, in particular, to shield itself against worldwide criticisms by garnering support through its party-to-party relations.
Following Deng Xiaoping’s mandate of ‘uniting our friends and isolating and attacking our enemies’, the CPC seeks constant support and friendship among its party-to-party networks and also is quick to lash out against its ‘enemies’ when it needs to.
In 2007, David Shambaugh in his often quoted article on ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ had argued that the CPC’s relation with foreign parties was mostly to learn from advanced democracies, while power politics and propaganda was considered supplementary.
But modern China is now stronger than it has ever been in history, and hence the reverse is more plausible. Elite party-to-party relations have become an integral component of the CPC’s foreign policy.
Recently, President Xi Jinping replied to a friendly letter from foreign students at Peking University urging them to ‘understand the Chinese Communist Party in order to understand China today’. As the CPC celebrates its 100th anniversary, we can only infer that there will be further efforts to deepen party-to-party relations and exchanges in future.
Inter-party relations will remain pivotal in sustaining overall Sino-Nepal relations, and could help Nepal in taking forward economic cooperation that Nepal desperately needs. Political leaders of all parties in Nepal, on the other hand, need to keep the national interest paramount and maintain a balanced relationship.
Aneka Rebecca Rajbhandari is an undergraduate student in political science and Raunab Singh Khatri is a Yenching scholar in China studies at Peking University.