In recent years many former heads of foreign governments have visited China, appearing at various forums, conferences, and other events. China’s engagement with these former leaders may appear to be a form of public diplomacy, but even more importantly it has been a strategy of political legitimation adopted by the Chinese Communist Party. Based on an original database of hundreds of cases, we provide a systematic analysis of the visits of former foreign leaders to China and of their role as external validators for the party-state and its policy initiatives, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative. By shedding light on the Party’s search for external consent and support, we seek to fill a significant gap in the literature, which tends to focus narrowly on the domestic sources of legitimacy and domestic strategies of legitimation.

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