The United Front and Global Public Opinion

At the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament overwhelmingly approved a series of amendments to the state constitution. While the lion’s share of media attention on the recently passed amendments has focused on a change that allows Xi Jinping to remain in his role as PRC President indefinitely, that was just one of 21 changes to the state charter, which collectively become the biggest edit to China’s constitution since its comprehensive revision in 1982. At The Jamestown Foundation, Matt Schrader posted on the content of the other, less-covered amendments, two of which focus on China’s global influence strategy:

Two of the proposed amendments are relevant to how China frames its role in the world, and seek to leverage communities in support of a program of national renewal and restoration. One would write into the constitution the term “community of common destiny”, also sometimes referred to as the “community of shared future” (命运共同体), an amorphous concept that places China at the center of a harmonious global community of peace and prosperity, in implicit contrast with the United States’ hegemonic, self-interested control of the present international system (China Brief, February 26, 2018). The community of common destiny is also tightly linked with the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s premier international initiative.

The other proposed adds the phrase “patriots devoted to the great renewal of the Chinese race” to the list of groups to be consolidated in a “” under the “leadership of the Communist Party of China”. The “great renewal of the Chinese race” is the phrase that, along with “the Chinese Dream”, has used most frequently to encapsulate his political agenda. This revision refers to the duty of overseas Chinese communities, among them Chinese students studying in foreign universities, to ensure their work contributes to Xi’s restoration of Chinese greatness. Accordingly, the phrase “great renewal of the Chinese race” has been used with increasing frequency in propaganda work targeting these communities, including events at which Chinese students in American colleges study and discuss ’s speeches with PRC embassy staff (people.cn, January 2). [Source]

The language used in the amendment dealing with the “united front” (统一战线) doesn’t explicitly outline a change in mission for the United Front Work Department (中共中央统战部), a domestic and foreign lobbying organization reporting directly to the CCP Central Committee that is tasked with managing and influencing a wide range of perceived threats to the Party. Under Xi’s first term, the UFWD’s mission was significantly expanded, and prior to the new amendment commentators expected that trend to continue. As we wait to see the global implications of the vague amendment that apparently expands who is considered a part of the CCP’s “united front,” CDT offers a roundup of recent coverage of the UFWD helping to explain how the organization plays into Beijing’s ongoing campaign to extend its global influence and shape international perception of China.

Last September, Auckland, New Zealand-based scholar Anne-Marie Brady outlined the way that the UFWD functions as a “magic weapon” for gaining international influence in a Wilson Center policy paper. The report used NZ as a case study to examine Chinese foreign influencing campaigns. Following the report and intense media interest in it, Brady was subject to two break-ins at her office and home, which were believed to be related to her ongoing work on the subject of Chinese international influence campaigns. NZ Prime Minister Ardern last month, following the second break-in, ordered security agencies to investigate the burglaries.

Brady’s study of the UFWD came after the organization’s suspected activities in Australia generated significant news last year. Individuals tied to the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China—an organization believed to be closely linked to the UFWD—had taken advantage of foreign political donation allowances in hopes that their financial contributions would gain them hard influence. Legislation aiming to limit foreign contributions is currently being mulled, and recently opposition to the bill has emerged from international advocacy groups who fear they would also see their work in Australia stifled under the proposed legislation. At Foreign Affairs this month, Australian journalist John Garnaut characterized his country as a “canary in the coal mine of CCP [global] interference,” and offered other democracies tips on how to push back against these covert Chinese campaigns.

At The Jamestown Foundation last month, John Dotsun examined the links between the CPPRC and the UFWD, outlining the former’s work globally and warning political analysts, diplomats, and journalists to be cautious when interfacing with the organization:

[…] The group has emerged in recent years at the forefront of groups representing, or claiming to represent, ethnic Chinese communities abroad; and has also become one of the PRC’s primary institutions for organizing and mobilizing the international Chinese diaspora in support of PRC policies. The organization maintains numerous branches in the United States, including chapters in New York, San Francisco, and other major cities. The national headquarters branch in the United States is the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU), located in Washington, D.C. [1]

In official statements, the CPPRC takes great pains to present itself as a private organization, sharing commonalities with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) created in other countries to pursue civic-oriented causes such as environmental activism, political mobilization, and humanitarian relief. The organization also takes pains both within China and without to present itself as one that represents broad sections of Chinese society outside of the Communist Party, stressing that it involves “people from various democratic parties as well as non-party affiliated people,” and that it is a “national organization formed of volunteer members from all walks of life, with an independent legal status” (China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification, April 23, 2008).

However, such statements are misleading, and a cursory examination of the organization’s leadership structure reveals that the CPPRC is directly subordinate to the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). […] Pursuant to its role as a subordinate entity of the UFWD, the Council has acted in the past as an agent for building UFWD contacts among senior-ranking military officers in Taiwan (China Brief, October 14, 2011). The CCP United Front Work Department is an organization that plays a major role in directing Beijing’s efforts to influence and government policy in countries throughout the world (Wilson Center, September 18, 2017; Financial Times, October 25, 2017). In the past, the UFWD has generally sought to keep a low international profile, and has remained obscure to most beyond the ranks of China-watching specialists. However, the organization now appears to be adopting a more prominent profile under Xi Jinping (China Brief, December 22, 2017). This has coincided with a more aggressive effort by PRC state-affiliated entities to influence political figures and policy debates in other countries, and the efforts of the CPPRC in the United States and elsewhere closely match this pattern.

[…] The CPPRC is only one example out of many synthetic civic groups managed by Beijing, which have long been employed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to pose as nominally independent outlets that campaign in support of PRC policies. As the UFWD assumes an ever-more influential role in shaping the foreign policy narratives of the PRC, the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China and other front organizations are likely to also assume a larger role as outlets for the propaganda themes of their parent organization. Rights to free speech and free association by U.S. citizens and legal residents should always be respected. However, those working in the fields of politics, journalism, and international affairs should remain cognizant that nominal civic groups such as the CPPRC may not be as independent as they appear on the surface, and that one need not be a government official to be a spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party. [Source]

In the latest installment of War on the Rock’s “Ministry of Truth” series focusing on CCP interference in the global public square (a series in which the UFWD has been a frequent subject), Peter Mattis offers a similar warning after delineating the difference between foreign “influence” and “interference” campaigns (the latter best characterizing the CCP’s united front work). Mattis focuses in on the way the organization attempts to shape public opinion globally by seeding disagreement:

[…] The primary concerns that have been expressed by myself and others deal with active policy, such as united front and propaganda work, seeking to exert pressure on foreign government entities and individuals, both legally and otherwise, to shape those government’s policies favorably towards the CCP. Even though united front work is often cloaked in euphemism, the United Front Work Department is sometimes quite obvious about its purpose. That department describes some of its responsibilities as “conducting propaganda work at home and abroad” and emphasizes the importance of support to external work mobilizing overseas Chinese to support national reunification. The difference between the United Front Work Department conducting propaganda and organizations like Voice of America or even China’s China Global Television Network is the degree of openness and transparency about who is delivering the message. These are not passive activities, but rather involve active shaping of the world beyond the party’s core.

Those who downplay concerns about CCP united front work and interference should be equally cautious. They too need to deal in facts rather than invective. Disagreement with the material presented in Australia’s Four Corners program “Power and Influence” in June came dangerously close to accusing those who see a problem as being racist and ignorant. Apart from the fact that these are CCP talking points — with exemplars from the Global Times and China’s embassy in Australia — these ad hominem attacks transform what could be a reasonable debate into a political struggle that will probably degenerate into witch hunts.

[…] Nothing about the debate over CCP interference and the terms of engagement between democratic and CCP institutions will be easy to resolve. The law establishes firm boundaries of acceptable behavior, but the rest will necessarily be decided through public discussion. Academics and journalists will play an important role in providing transparency, establishing the facts of the matter, and generating reasonable responses.

Critics and skeptics alike have a stake in keeping the conversation civil. As Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have demonstrated in the past and the present, no political party can scapegoat the others without risk to themselves. [Source]

At the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter blog, Gerry Groot last week examined the history and current domestic and international campaigns of the UFWD—whose long reach may further extend based on the relevant language in the new constitutional amendment:

[…] This complex set of institutions and organisations act as key elements of surveillance and political influence, but also as means of consultation with and representation of those outside the Party. This system is an important reason the CCP’s control is so effective and regarded as legitimate, and why the dramatic social and economic changes since the late-1980s have been integrated smoothly, especially after the disruptions of May-June 1989.

One reason united front work and its key body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), is underappreciated or dismissed as a decorative, is that there is little public acknowledgement of its influence. The CCP takes credit overall. Significantly, Xi Jinping has made himself head of a United Front Small Leading Group since 2015, adding to his ‘Chairman of Everything’ list of titles.

Today the system of united front work is more expansive than ever, incorporating important new social interest groups, neutralising potential trouble makers, soliciting advice from experts and having key representatives model their support for the CCP to others in their constituencies. As lawyers became more important with the rise of a new legal system, and some activists embarrassed the Party-state about human rights, they also became a special target of united front work in order to neutralise their apparent anti-state tendencies. Social media celebrities have also recently been made special targets of UFWD co-optation and this is one reason for their decline. Cooperation, for many, becomes more attractive than becoming targets of official lawfare or other forms of retaliation.

[…] It is precisely [the] increasing tendency of the CCP to feel entitled, obliged even, to extend a form of extraterritoriality to all overseas Chinese, but especially all those who have emigrated or left since 1978 that worries a growing number of people, from intelligence agencies to universities. Most importantly, many overseas Chinese now have reason to feel that even outside China, the eyes and arms of the Party state are potentially all around them and so the need to toe the Party’s positions remains. […] [It is precisely this increasing tendency of the CCP to feel entitled, obliged even, to extend a form of extraterritoriality to all overseas Chinese, but especially all those who have emigrated or left since 1978 that worries a growing number of people, from intelligence agencies to universities. Most importantly, many overseas Chinese now have reason to feel that even outside China, the eyes and arms of the Party state are potentially all around them and so the need to toe the Party’s positions remains.[Source]

In his article, Groot also noted that growing bodies of overseas Chinese students have protested against topics and figures deemed politically incorrect by Beijing. (Meanwhile and quite contrary to the nationalistic displays seen in recent years on foreign campuses, some overseas Chinese students have begun to protest the removal of presidential term limits, a topic about which discussion has been carefully controlled domestically on social media and by media coverage directives.) For more on the topic of Party ideology being expressed by Chinese students on American university campuses, see a recent report from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian at Foreign Policy.