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Chinese experts challenge Western generalists in diplomacy


Sabine Mokry

The emphasis on regional expertise is a major asset of China’s diplomatic corps. Chinese diplomats frequently rotate within a geographic region. China’s top ambassadors, however, are often left in their positions for a long time. The preference for seniority and the lack of qualified potential successors could weaken the overall effectiveness of China’s diplomatic outreach. This article is part 5 of a MERICS blog series on China’s new foreign policy setup.

Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua leaves the Great Hall of the People in March 2017. He assumed his post more than eight years ago. Source: ImagineChina.

China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, has spent a decade in his current post. Ambassadors from other countries hardly spend that much time on a single post. In fact, Li spent his whole career working on Russia and its neighbors. Most importantly, he served as ambassador to Kazakhstan and led the general directorate for Eastern European and Central Asian Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Li’s considerable regional expertise is hardly unusual in China’s foreign service and may be seen as a strength. However, Li’s example also underscores a persistent problem in China’s diplomacy: a lack of renewal in top posts.  

Most Chinese ambassadors spend on average 3½ years on their posts, which is close to the international average. Every year, China exchanges its ambassador in up to a third of its 170 embassies and ten permanent missions. In the first half of 2018, 27 new ambassadors started their positions. In the past five years, 2014 was the year with the highest turnover when 60 ambassadors were replaced. The lowest turnover was in 2017, when only 35 ambassadors were newly appointed.

In contrast, China’s top ambassadors are far less mobile. The current ambassadors at China’s most prestigious embassies (excluding India) have spent around six years on their posts. In international comparison, this is relatively long. It suggests that the CCP only trusts very few people to take the top posts. The Chinese government deems its envoys to the United States, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Germany, Brazil, India and North Korea most important. With (almost) ten years, China’s ambassadors to Russia and the UK have served the longest. Only China’s ambassador to India has been exchanged more frequently; the current ambassador was appointed two years ago.

Regional experience is key for new appointments

Knowledge of foreign languages continues to be an important selection criterion for China’s diplomats. Regional expertise, measured in the number of previous postings in or related to the same geographic region, is seen as a plus: the more an ambassador knows about the regional context, the better he/she is able to represent China’s interests on the ground. 

The CCP seems to increasingly pick ambassadors with more experience in the respective region than their predecessors. More than half of ambassadors appointed in 2017 have more previous experience in the region than their predecessors. In contrast, only a small minority of 7 percent had less regional experiences. For the first half of 2018 a similar trend appears: More than two thirds of newly appointed ambassadors have at least as much regional experiences as their predecessors with a third of them having more experience.

China’s current top ambassadors have not only served on their postings for a long time, but two thirds are close to the official retirement age of 65. Examining their shared career steps provides hints on who could replace them. All top-level ambassadors have at least once served as an ambassador before taking up the top post, indicating that a prior ambassadorial posting is a necessary condition. Five out of the nine current top ambassadors were vice ministers before and/or led a department in the MFA, indicating that having served at a high level MFA posting counts as a plus.

These demands leave a fairly small pool of diplomats with sufficient international exposure and experiences at the MFA headquarter. Currently, four out of the current six vice ministers and roughly half of the 31 director generals in China’s MFA seem eligible as they have been posted abroad as ambassadors before.

Three obstacles to professionalism in China’s diplomatic corps  

The preference for seniority has given rise to concerns that young diplomats cannot rise through the ranks. While the Chinese government does not publish its promotion criteria, they are the subject of intense debate among Chinese scholars and the foreign policy establishment. (Former) diplomats frequently complain about delays in filling key diplomatic posts. As a consequence, there might be a lack of qualified younger diplomats with sufficient international exposure who could occupy China’s top positions in the future. Whereas complaints about the lack of competence are not unique to China’s foreign policy establishment, the comparatively high dropout rates in China’s foreign service suggest that there might be more fundamental problems.

Centralization of power and the CCP’s more pervasive role could provide the second obstacle to professionalization in China’s diplomatic service. In his speech at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in June 2018, Xi Jinping reiterated the party’s tight grip on foreign policy. Most notably, Xi reminded China’s diplomats that they are first and foremost “party cadres.” For the future, this could signal a big shift in which party loyalty is valued higher than professional or regional expertise.

The third obstacle relates to the MFA’s weak position within China’s foreign policy apparatus. Chinese embassies not only implement the policies drafted at MFA headquarters in Beijing but they also engage with a variety of actors within China’s bureaucracy. At times, there seem to be no clear lines of command at China’s embassies. For example, only half the personnel at any given mission is employed through the MFA. At each embassy, there is, for example a MOFCOM representative. While it has been announced that ambassadors should have more say on personnel issues, it remains to be seen if and when this materializes.  

Knowing China is the best answer

Despite these potential quality problems, which could weaken the overall effectiveness of China’s diplomatic corps, policymakers in Europe and elsewhere should not underestimate China’s key competitive advantage: the strong focus on regional experience. Extensive previous exposure to the region in which they serve and knowledge of the local language(s) could put Chinese diplomats at an advantage vis-à-vis their counterparts from other countries who traditionally want their diplomats to be generalists.

It is no coincidence that Western diplomatic services have started discussing to open up regional career paths. If European governments want to meet China’s representatives eye-to-eye, they will have to invest some resources into training diplomats who know China as well as China knows their countries.

This blog post is based on information published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MFA’s and embassies’ websites regularly publish detailed CVs of Chinese ambassadors and the MFA’s leadership. In the news section of the MFA website, ambassadorial appointments are regularly announced. Data was collected on all ambassadorial appointments from January 2012 until June 2018. The CVs of the MFA’s leadership, including vice ministers and assistant ministers, were reviewed separately between April and June 2018.

Continue reading part 6 of the blog series.

This series is also published by our partner publication The Diplomat.


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