Inside China’s secretive United Front – Louisa Lim
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The Communist Party’s shadowy United Front Work department has emerged stronger than ever after the most recent government reshuffle. This body, which President Xi Jinping referred to in 2014 as a “magic weapon” for achieving the “rejuvenation of the Chinese race,” has now taken over responsibility for all work related to ethnic minority groups, religious management and contact with overseas Chinese, along with its main task of winning hearts and minds overseas.
“It makes clear what was generally the case all along: the United Front Work Department was the arbiter behind the government departments carrying out this work,” says Dr Gerry Groot of the University of Adelaide, who specialises in the United Front Work Department (UFWD), over email. “Though many people researching areas like religion and ethnic affairs knew that the UFWD was the real power or at least important, it is remarkable how rarely this was acknowledged in published work,” he continued. “That pretence of a separation between Party, government and civil society is now over.”
So what does this secretive body even do? Surprisingly little is known about how it operates, even though since 2015 the UFWD has been gaining importance, swelling its ranks by more than 40,000 cadres following the formation of the Leading Small Group on United Front Work headed by Xi Jinping. The UFWD’s mission is as a lobbying body to win over those not traditionally sympathetic to the CCP’s agenda, as evidenced by Communist party efforts in the 1930s to build a United Front against the Japanese by seeking support among its traditional adversaries, including capitalists, landlords, intellectuals and Kuomintang members.
“United Front Work is the responsibility of every Chinese Communist Party member and especially every Chinese Communist Party member who has an official position,” says Groot. “They are supposed to make friends and influence those friends to take on the official positions of the Communist Party.”
This charm offensive is achieved by a variety of methods, including cooperation, cooption, coercion and by making the price of collaboration irresistible, thus slowly absorbing the party’s enemies into its ranks. When it comes to entrepreneurs, the carrots dangled include sought-after positions in government advisory bodies like the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), which imply insider access, if not actual power. The success of this strategy can be seen from a single statistic: the CPPCC now contains 59 US dollar billionaires, whose combined net worth is double the GDP of Ireland.
In recent years, United Front work has turned its focus outward, harnessing Chinese living overseas – particularly businessmen, community leaders and students – to project Communist party influence abroad. One tried-and-tested formula is the use of community associations, either setting up new bodies or usurping existing ones to serve party ends.
To illustrate its modus operandi, Groot uses a fictional example – the Australian Association of Buddhists from Guangxi – which could be a front set up by a single person. Regardless of its size or membership, that association can be used as a propaganda tool to be quoted in the Australian and Chinese media, creating the impression of support from Chinese-Australians and bolstering Party legitimacy. It can also be used to press for changes to Australian policies regarding China, by filing submissions to parliamentary committees or by lobbying within the Chinese community. “Creating these is a piece of cake in a place like Australia,” Groot says, pointing out that these bodies’ status as a non-governmental organizations gives them plausible deniability if their links with the Communist Party are questioned.
“A lot of these groups are actually created by entrepreneurs who try to parlay the so-called community associations into political influence,” according to Groot, “both in Australia or they’re doing it deliberately to curry favour with the United Front department and get benefits that way.” Back in China, he says a “two-nameplate policy” is often used to disguise the fact that an entity is actually a United Front body, in particular with local chambers of commerce and industry federations. “Lots of foreigners in particular,” he continues, “think they’re dealing with a government-related entity or a civil society entity, when they’re dealing with a very complex entity which is controlled, directed, administered, and surveyed constantly by the Communist Party United Front work department.”
The reach of these groups inside Australia is suggested by a recent parliamentary submission by Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University and the ANU’s Alex Joske, outlining eight different type of community association used for this purpose, including hometown associations, cultural groups and the Chinese Scholars and Students Associations. The document, quoting a Chinese-language newspaper, names 81 different organizations in Australia which are members of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China – the key organizational body, according to Groot. Its former chairman, Huang Xiangmo, who resigned in November, was at the centre of a controversy over foreign donations to political parties.
“Australia and New Zealand appear to have been a test zone for United Front activities in recent years,” the University of Canterbury’s Annemarie Brady told an Australian parliamentary committee, “and now it has reached a critical level.” Brady had published a paper describing United Front activities in New Zealand, warning that China’s foreign influence activities have the potential to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the political system of targeted states. Three months later, she testified to the Australian parliamentary committee that she had been the victim of two suspicious break-ins, during which three laptops were stolen but other valuables left untouched. New Zealand’s security agencies are now investigating the burglaries.
The recent government reshuffle in China strengthens the United Front work department by putting the Party front and centre, centralising power. Groot predicts this will streamline decision-making, meaning even fewer impediments to President Xi Jinping’s mission. “It will probably be harder for lower levels of the Party to avoid, dilute or adjust policies, even if this ‘interference’ would make achieving the ostensible goals more likely.” ∎