Unbundling systems: Foreign affairs reform in China’s provinces

An analysis of post-2018 bureaucratic reform at the province level sheds light on the Xi era’s compartmentalisation of the CCP foreign affairs and united front systems.


Province-level Foreign Affairs Offices (FAOs) wield considerable authority to initiate, maintain, and shape foreign engagement. Although the 2018 institutional reform has had a significant impact on local FAOs, its effects have received little attention. Through examining official websites, news reports of leaders’ interactions, and accounting reports, we mapped the structure and recent history of all 31 province-level FAOs. In a large majority of provinces, province-level Overseas Chinese Affairs Offices split from foreign affairs at the end of 2018 and became subsumed under the United Front Work Department, thus quickly reflecting central-level changes. The clearer institutional anchoring of united front’s leadership over diaspora affairs signals the party’s renewed focus on diasporic communities. With noteworthy exceptions, province-level foreign affairs retained robust links to Hong Kong and Macao affairs. A vanguard of provinces split that portfolio from foreign affairs to consolidate it with united front, Taiwan affairs, or both. On the other hand, other foreign affairs agencies, such as People’s Associations for Friendship with Foreign Countries, stayed under their FAOs’ aegis wherever we could document recent activity. We suggest that the new institutional arrangement points to greater compartmentalization in systems and the growing importance of diaspora work. More broadly, we argue, the elucidation of the reform brought about by our methodology advocates for the study of adjacent systems in concert, over time, and at both the central and subnational levels. An appendix summarizes the features of all 31 province-level FAOs, with additional detail on Jiangsu and Guangdong, respectively reflecting typical and outlying institutional arrangements.

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