Feb 12, 2020 - World

Between the lines on Chinese strategy: "Use the local to surround the center"

Chinese stars surrounding an illustration of city hall
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In this recurring feature from the Axios China newsletter, I'll interview an expert about a Chinese Communist Party phrase to explain the news.

The phrase: "Use the local to surround the center." (以地方包围中央)

What it means: Building up support for China at the state and local levels in a foreign country so that those leaders may then call upon the national government to adopt policies that are friendlier to Beijing.

The expert take: Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, tells me this strategy usually involves political funding of some kind via...

  • Chinese government proxy groups and individuals.
  • Subsidized trips to China.
  • Business partnerships.
  • Directorships on Chinese companies.
  • Special economic agreements such as a local-level signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Business and political connections via "friendships," aka "sister cities."

The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party cares about cultivating mayors and state officials in countries thousands of miles away, Brady says, because...

  • They make decisions. "Local and state governments have a lot of delegated powers for governance over various aspects of society and they also are frequently the bodies which make decisions on infrastructure projects."
  • They're vulnerable. "They don’t tend to have much depth in foreign policy knowledge, which tends to make them even more vulnerable to foreign interference activities than national-level bodies."
  • They put the economy first. "Local government tends to prioritize economic development as a key marker of good governance, so they tend to be very attracted to China’s economic diplomacy efforts."

Go deeper: China’s playbook for hooking local governments

Go deeper