Corridors of Power

How Beijing uses economic, social and network ties to exert influence

Full Report

AidData's Corridors of Power report, accompanied by updates to our China Public Diplomacy Dashboard, analyzes Beijing's efforts to cultivate and deepen economic, social, and network ties with 13 countries in South and Central Asia (SCA) over two decades.

These ties have the potential to both empower and constrain SCA countries, while threatening to displace or diminish regional rivals such as Russia, India, and the United States.

The nine-person team of authors marshaled a robust set of data to analyze Beijing’s multi-dimensional influence playbook and consider how citizens respond to great powers jockeying for primacy in the region.

Economic Ties

Beijing’s subnational financial diplomacy (logged) by SCA country, 2000-2017

Beijing has a deep but narrow financial diplomacy footprint, concentrating outsized investments in a small number of strategically important communities. We find that the PRC targeted 62 percent (US$78 billion) of its financial diplomacy dollars to just 25 provinces. The largest province-level recipient was Sindh province in Pakistan, which Beijing bankrolled to the tune of nearly US$13 billion, approximately 10 percent of its financial diplomacy for all of South and Central Asia. Other big ticket investment locations included Turkmenistan’s Mary province (US$8 billion) and Pakistan’s Punjab province (US$7 billion). 

If budgets are reflective of one’s real priorities, then it is notable that each of these three provinces attracted more money from Beijing between 2000-2017 than seven of the 13 countries in the South and Central Asia region. Taking a more granular view, a privileged club of 25 district-level recipients accounted for 41 percent (US$52 billion) of the PRC’s overall assistance across the entire region. Pakistan’s Karachi division alone pocketed US$8 billion of Beijing’s financial diplomacy, with Kazakhstan’s Atyrau district (US$5 billion) not far behind.

Source: Corridors of Power

Chinese official finance, 2000-2017

Beijing's financial diplomacy dwarfs its other public diplomacy tools in terms of sheer scale and visibility. For the period 2000-2017, AidData uncovered $126 billion in committed, implemented or completed projects in the SCA region by official Chinese agencies and banks. Of this, some $120 billion is in infrastructure investments. Eighty-five percent of infrastructure investments go to new construction projects, and two countries in particular captured half of Beijing’s financial diplomacy investments: Pakistan—an early signatory to the Belt and Road Initiative—and Kazakhstan.

The Chinese government’s funding of development projects in other countries is not new to BRI or the tenure of President Xi Jinping. From initially low levels of support, Beijing's financial diplomacy increased sharply beginning as early as 2008. To assemble this new data, AidData researchers collected information on grants, concessional loans, non-concessional loans from Chinese government agencies, policy banks, state-owned commercial banks, and investment funds.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Social Ties

Language and culture

Language and culture centers run by Russia, China, and the US

The PRC has been a relative newcomer, but it has quickly made up for lost time, accounting for 30 percent of all language and culture institutions we identified in the SCA region as of 2018, only surpassed by the US. Kyrgyzstan stands out as a striking example. By virtue of Beijing’s strategy of partnering with primary and secondary schools, the PRC leapfrogged both the US and Russia to gain an outsized presence—64 percent of all cultural centers in the country. The first CI in the SCA region opened in Tashkent in 2004. 

The PRC’s cultural centers face greater competition in Central Asia from Russia. The Russian government set up 32 Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Mir centers across South and Central Asia, but its geographic focus is more concentrated—59 percent of its centers were focused on just three countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Except for India, Russia has at best a token presence in South Asia. There is less comprehensive information available on Russian cultural centers, but we identified centers opening as early as 1965.

The US is the front-runner in terms of overall volume of language and cultural centers, with an estimated 92 American Spaces across the region as of 2018, compared to 65 Confucius centers. It also has a longer-standing presence, with some of the first American Spaces in the region opened in the 1940s and 1950s. In India and Sri Lanka, the US and the PRC are in a virtual dead-heat. The US far surpassed the PRC’s cultural centers in Afghanistan, though the US withdrawal of its military in 2021 may reset the playing field.

Source: Corridors of Power

Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, 2005-2018

A centerpiece of Beijing's soft power overtures globally, Confucius Institutes (CIs) are Chinese government-funded educational institutions that teach Chinese language, culture, and history in partnership with a host university in a recipient country. Beijing opened up 64 new Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms (CCs) in the SCA region from 2000 to 2018. Schools and universities must apply to the Chinese government to receive a Confucius establishment, so the presence of these institutes depends as much on demand from and preferences of SCA countries as it does on Beijing’s intentions.

However, there are two important differences in how the Chinese government appears to be operating in the SCA region compared to elsewhere. Beijing opened substantially fewer Confucius establishment in the region (58 as of 2016) than the 248 institutions in the East Asia and Pacific region during the same time period. And while there has been substantial media attention paid to CIs at the university-level in other countries, 58 percent of Confucius establishments in the SCA region were CCs at the primary or secondary level. The preponderance of these establishments were targeted towards a single country: Kyrgyzstan.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Sister cities

Sister city agreements between PRC and SCA countries

As of 2018, Beijing had cultivated 193 central-to-local or local-to-local ties with 174 cities across the SCA region. Over half (52 percent) were focused on just 16 priority cities. The highest intensity of Beijing's overtures is being directed towards Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Kathmandu, Nepal. We examined four types of city connections in the report: Chinese language testing centers, Confucius Institutes, content-sharing partners with local media, and sister cities. By far the most frequent type of city-level connections were sister city agreements (101 agreements).

Sister cities pair a Chinese city or province with a counterpart city or province in an SCA country for the purpose of economic cooperation or socio-cultural exchange. Beijing's enthusiasm for sister cities, and other forms of city-level connections has grown substantially before and after the launch of President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative. PRC city or province-level diplomacy is most likely an extension of state-directed public diplomacy efforts, as opposed to occurring organically and in isolation from central level directives.

Source: Corridors of Power

Sister cities established, as of 2018

Since 1973, Beijing has used sister city agreements which “twin” a Chinese city, town or province with a foreign counterpart to strengthen commercial, cultural, and social ties with municipal officials and business leaders in other countries. Unlike Confucius Institutes (see below) sister city agreements are more evenly distributed between South Asia and Central Asia, with Kyrgyzstan receiving the most attention, followed closely by Kazakhstan.

The Chinese government launched its first sister city in the SCA region with Pakistan in 1984, but the bulk of new agreements were signed between 2013 and 2016. It may be the case that President Xi Jinping views sister city agreements as part of a broader package of inducements, along with new trade and investment deals, to encourage countries to sign on to the BRI. Notably, we see an uptick in new sister city agreements beginning in 2013, the year Xi assumed the presidency and announced BRI as his signature foreign policy agenda. Five years later, of the roughly 2,600 sister city and province relations that China has globally, more than 700 cities are in countries involved in the BRI.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy


Comparative visa requirements for SCA students in the PRC, Russia, the US, and the UK

Chinese visa requirements for SCA students

Russian visa requirements for SCA students

US visa requirements for SCA students

UK visa requirements for SCA students

The PRC offers the least burdensome visa requirements—in terms of cost, health requirements, and proof of payment—for students from most countries in the SCA region, assuming it reinstates its previous policy once COVID-19 concerns abate. Russia comes close to the PRC in terms of ease of visa acquisition, but only in a limited number of countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). For applicants from most SCA countries, the PRC charges US$50 or less for a student visa and caps the proof of payment requirement to US$2,500 per year of study. Comparatively, to study in London the average SCA student would need to pay nine-times more for a UK student visa (US$470) and demonstrate capacity to cover US$21,475 or £16,008 in living expenses per year. The US, albeit cheaper than the UK, still charges SCA students three times as much for a standard US student visa (US$160).

Nevertheless, the PRC’s approach to SCA countries is not monolithic and it varies its visa regulations across the region. Examining these differences is instructive in illuminating Beijing’s revealed priorities, as the PRC’s requirements vary between countries to a much greater degree than its study abroad competitors. This is best exemplified by comparing divergent requirements for three early signatories which joined the BRI in 2013: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan is the frontrunner for Beijing’s attention, with the only published requirement a modest visa fee of US$26. This strategy is paying off, as Pakistan is now the largest supplier of SCA students to Chinese study abroad programs. By contrast, the PRC employs more stringent (though not compared to other destination countries) requirements for students from Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. 

Source: Corridors of Power

Chinese government scholarships, 2010-2018

For the eight SCA countries where we have comparable data over time, the number of Chinese government scholarships announced each year more than tripled between 2010 and 2018. One-third of these 10,000 scholarships went to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both countries that border China, where Beijing is doubling down on its efforts to strengthen people-to-people ties. Beijing may be wielding public diplomacy tools in mutually reinforcing ways: financial diplomacy bolsters China’s image as an attractive study abroad destination, while the scholarships it provides may dampen criticism of its BRI infrastructure projects.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Inbound Students, 2000-2018

Between 2000 and 2018, the number of international students in China rose to around 500,000—a ten-fold increase. Two-thirds of international students studying in China hailed from BRI countries and 61 percent of Chinese government scholarships in 2016 were awarded to students from BRI countries.

This trend could be partly supply-side driven, as Beijing may view scholarships as a way to quell potential protests against BRI projects, some of which are beset by allegations of corruption, flouted environmental regulations, and deprivation of employment opportunities for locals. However, it is also plausible that the Chinese government's large-scale infrastructure investments in SCA countries via BRI may be stoking demand for study abroad opportunities, as young people are impressed by China’s economic clout and view studying in China as opening up new economic opportunities both at home and abroad.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Per capita, 2000-2018

In absolute terms, South Asia accounted for 70 percent of all students from SCA countries studying in China in 2017. However, when we adjust for population size, a different picture emerges: Central Asia supplied 12 times the number of students per 100,000 persons aged 15-44 as did South Asia.

SCA nationals that study in China are exposed to Chinese cultural values, norms, and policy positions, which can benefit Beijing’s interests in two ways. First,
returning students can share these experiences with their networks and advocate for China-friendly positions and policies. This can improve general attitudes and perceptions toward China. Second, today’s students may become tomorrow’s leaders, and therefore sympathy or affinity for China may have a more profound effect in key policy decisions that involve China.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Networks and Media

How connected are SCA and PRC elites on Twitter?

The PRC has increasingly—and controversially—harnessed the network power of Twitter to amplify its preferred narratives. But its success depends on its ability to access a critical mass of SCA elites on the social media platform. In the report, we find that most SCA elites appear to stick close to home in following handles from their own country, rather than PRC-affiliated accounts. Each handle is represented by a dot colored by country. Dots with brighter hues indicate handles with connections between an SCA country and the PRC, while faded hues have only within-SCA or within-China connections. Pakistan is a notable exception to this trend: compared with their SCA peers, Pakistani handles have higher overlap with PRC-affiliated handles in the same communities.

For most SCA countries, a relatively small number of brokers—handles that bridge two communities that would otherwise be unconnected—occupy critical positions in facilitating the flow of information and communication between SCA and PRC-affiliated Twitter handles. The PRC uses state-owned media to push out preferred narratives and diplomatic accounts to amplify these messages. Within SCA countries, the PRC relies on a small cadre of South Asian politicians and journalists who serve as gatekeepers to reach broader audiences. In Central Asia, this role is more commonly assumed by government ministries tasked with foreign relations or trade.

Source: Corridors of Power

Media outreach by Chinese senior leaders, 2002-2017

Senior leaders—including the Chinese President, Premier, Vice President, and Vice Premier—are a important tool of Beijing’s informational diplomacy. From 2002 to 2017, this group gave 27 interviews to SCA media outlets, while the Chinese President and Premier held an additional 32 press briefings with SCA media, including eight regional briefings alongside Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders.

Half of this high-level media engagement by Chinese senior leaders was oriented towards just two SCA countries: India and Kazakhstan. Chinese senior leaders also penned and placed 12 op-eds in major media outlets across the SCA region from 2013 to 2017; however, this represents a mere 16 percent of the 75 such op-eds they published globally.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Official visits, 2000-2017

Beijing pays substantially more attention to cultivating government diplomacy in South Asian countries. Between 2000 and 2017, there were 1,039 visits between Chinese government officials and their South Asian counterparts—more than in Central Asia (722). Kazakhstan, which accounts for the second largest number of total government visits after India, is a notable exception to this predominant focus on South Asia. Beijing likely recognizes the strategic value of both Kazakhstan and India as dominant regional players, whose leaders set the tone for the foreign policy and diplomatic relations of smaller countries in their respective subregions.

Visits between Chinese and SCA government leaders are largely driven by SCA senior leaders visiting China than vice versa. SCA officials may be trying harder to woo Beijing than the other way around. Alternatively, Beijing may be more willing to foot the bill to host foreign officials to participate in lavish junkets that create favorable impressions of China and its development.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Military-to-military diplomacy, 2003-2016

Military diplomacy is another important part of Beijing's public diplomacy toolkit. Beijing has historically oriented much of its military diplomacy towards major powers such as Russia and the US, as well as other Asian countries along China’s periphery. Military-to-military relations are often more durable than those of civilian counterparts, who are more easily voted in and out of power.

Visits between senior PLA leaders and their counterparts accounted for the bulk of Beijing's military-to-military overtures in SCA countries between 2003 and 2016. But the PLA also increased military diplomacy activities across the board, particularly under President Xi’s tenure, with joint military exercises as a noteworthy growth area. Nearly a third of these exercises were with Pakistan, such as the Sino-Pakistani Shaheen exercise series. Beijing recognizes Russia’s role as the dominant regional security provider in Central Asia, and has instead emphasized activities there which project its economic soft power. In this respect, it comes as no surprise that South Asia received substantially more of the PLA’s military diplomacy overtures (68 percent) than Central Asia.

Source: Silk Road Diplomacy

Alex Wooley

Director of Partnerships and Communications