Sinopsis: The CCP’s Model of Social Control Goes Global

The following article is reposted from Project Sinopsis, with permission:

The CCP’s Model of Social Control Goes Global

And an academic disclosing the mechanism gets caught in its crosshairs

by Martin Hála and Jichang Lulu

One of the most striking aspects of Xi Jinping’s “New Era” is the rapid externalization of systems and policies previously only applied, for the most part, domestically. This external activism is of course a reflection of the CCP’s new effort to utilize the “historic window of opportunity” in international relations, identified by Xi as one of the defining characteristics of the “New Era.” The advancement of the PRC’s global interests, in particular through Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ and other geopolitical initiatives, includes the extraterritorial expansion of social control mechanisms once mostly reserved to the PRC. These mechanisms comprise cooptive and coercive tactics: work and repression, both intensified under Xi.

The academic study of global cooptation by academic Anne-Marie Brady has proven sensitive enough to trigger cross-border coercion: the publication of her “Magic Weapons” paper on global United Front work has been followed with state-media attacks and a harassment campaign. In response, we initiated an open letter in her support that gathered 303 signatures, largely from the Chinese studies community. Beyond solidarity with a researcher facing apparent retaliation for her scholarly work, the response reflects widespread concern with the CCP’s intent to project its repression mechanisms abroad, shielding its cooptive influence mechanism from expert scrutiny.

Three Magic Weapons for the three realms of control

The CCP’s Leninist model of governance applies several basic mechanisms to maximize control over a vast population by a small “vanguard” without the explicit consent of the governed masses. The model is onion-shaped, made up of three concentric layers of governance. The tools to control these three realms are, to echo a Maoist simile, “three magic weapons” (三大法宝): Party building, armed struggle (succeeded by state violence) and cooptation tactics (the United Front).

The inner realm is the Party itself, the “vanguard” of China’s working class, the Chinese people and the Chinese “nation” (民族), controlled by the party discipline imposed by its core leadership. Resuming a trend often encountered in Communist history, Xi as the Party’s “Core” (核心) has been consolidated as a potentially perpetual dictator. Party discipline is mostly enforced through extra-legal bodies, notably the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI, 中央纪律检查委员会), prominent in Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign. When these instruments are not deemed sufficient and  discipline loosens, the Party is brought under control again with periodic purges. Individual Party members enjoy various privileges and certain career paths are only open to them, but at the same time are bound by strict Party discipline that subjects them to more direct control by the Core than any other social group.

Apart from its own members, the Party also aspires to control everything else, a notion expressed by a famous Mao Zedong dictum, which Xi Jinping has quoted and added to the Party constitution: “The Party, government, Army, civilian sector and education, East, West, South, North and Centre – the Party leads it all” (党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的). Xi’s tenure has also strengthened the Party’s (and thus Xi’s own) authority over the central institutions through which it controls China’s society and economy: the Army and the state. Xi’s reform of the PLA, following an anti-corruption campaign, has disbanded the general departments, seen as concentrating too much power. The restructuring after the 19th Party Congress has reduced the separation between Party and state. Party control over state-owned enterprises has increased, admonishing them not to “forget the Party spirit [党性, партийность]” and stressing the Party’s leadership and the role of Party committees. The Party’s extra-judicial discipline system, once reserved to Party members, has been extended into state administration with the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission (国家监察委员会), in practice subordinate to the CCDI.

Cooptation and coercion

The Party may strive to control everything, but farther from the Core, the two remaining Magic Weapons are needed to rein in the two extra-Party (党外) realms: repression and United Front work.  

The inner layer in the onion outside the Party core is reserved for those who do not openly challenge the Party’s dominance in the system, and can be, at least temporarily, “united” with. Such alliances are carefully managed, without absorbing them into the Party itself lest they dilute its “purity.” There is, after all, a difference between the inner and outer circles (内外有别).  The “magical” mechanism to achieve this uneven alliance is the United Front (UF) work.

UF tactics were first prescribed by the Comintern to non-Soviet Communist parties as a way to reach state power through temporary alliances, eventually in the French and Spanish Popular Fronts; later, United and ‘National’ Fronts were institutionalized to help govern Communist states in Eastern Europe and East Asia. The CCP’s variant of the concept seeks to dominate such key social groups as business, religions, and the Chinese diaspora by rewarding members with positions within an elaborate system of UF organizations that institutionalizes these alliances: eight ancillary parties, chambers of commerce, patriotic religious associations, Overseas Chinese groups, as well as membership of non-CCP delegates in the National People’s Congress, the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and their versions at lower levels of administration. These appointments, useful to their beneficiaries as marks of official support, in turn keep such influential figures under control, turning them into ‘United Frontlings’ who can help advance Party policy.

These groups were as essential to the CCP’s revolutionary struggle as they are to its rule over today’s PRC; like his predecessors, Xi continues to repeat Mao’s adage on UF work as a magic weapon. Beyond speeches, Xi has strengthened the role of the UF system and the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) within it, with tens of thousands of new cadres and the formal absorption of what used to be state organs.

As a third weapon, state repression can be seen as having inherited the role of armed struggle. It is reserved primarily for the outer circle in the governance model, inhabited by those deemed too hostile to be “united” with. The criteria for who falls into which circle outside the Party continue to shift, at the sole discretion of its Core. Those on the wrong side of this arbitrary divide can expect (often extremely vicious) repression.    

Under Xi, persecution of lawyers and labor activists has dramatically increased. In Xinjiang, Xi’s apartheid-like policies criminalise expressions of non-Han and Muslim identity, confining hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other mostly Muslim citizens to a network of internment camps.

Globalisation 2.0: Party control goes global

The traditional domain of the CCP’s control model is the territory it rules (the PRC), territories it aspires to rule (Taiwan and, before handover, Hong Kong and Macau), and the Chinese diaspora, target of the Qiaowu 侨务 (Overseas Chinese affairs) system.

As a natural consequence of the PRC’s increasing economic clout and Xi’s strengthening of Party power, this dual model of control is now spreading abroad. The Xiist expansion of the model globalizes its domestic and diasporic version of social control, appropriating the existing political and social structures of target countries.

The tools of extraterritorial repression at the CCP’s disposal remain limited, but the PRC’s economic power continues to add new options. The crackdown in Xinjiang extends to the Uyghur diaspora, through forced repatriations, blackmail, threats, extensive  surveillance, spying and diplomatic pressure to prevent scrutiny of these activities. Threats of punishment to family members in China allows the Party to try and silence Chinese critics abroad. Direct harassment of dissidents overseas has also been documented. In Sweden, the Tibetan refugee Dorjee Gyantsan (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་) was recruited by the MSS to spy on the local Tibetan community. Kidnappings beyond its jurisdiction have brought the PRC no major negative consequences, opening the door to more cases like that of Gui Minhai (桂民海), the Swedish editor abducted in 2015 in Thailand. Extraterritorial censorship, still often ineffective in the form of open threats to media outlets, works well with companies seeking business in China, as seen in the recent erasure of Taiwan from country lists on airline websites. The U.S. government called the renaming requests “Orwellian nonsense,” but such rhetorical response did not prevent American airlines from eventually toeing the line.

Outside the overseas Chinese communities, extraterritorial coercion remains for the time being an exception, rather than a rule. Cooptation, on the other hand, encounters few impediments. The expansion of United Front work beyond its traditional domestic and diasporic domain preserves its core methods: empower friendly figures with favors, access and representation, while ostracizing recalcitrant elements. Traditional UF groups, notably ‘Reunification’ councils, have seen their role expanded from the control of Chinese communities to the political and economic mainstream, as documented in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. UF organisations are instrumental in forging localized contacts with the PRC, as seen in the case of the Fujian ‘embassy’ of a Czech region. ‘Sinicized’ religion might become another way of targeting foreign societies, as already seen in state-driven contacts with Buddhism in Mongolia.

Beyond the UF system, various organisations involved in international exchanges employ similar methods to coopt foreign elites. The CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 中联部), which once mainly liaised with fellow Communist parties, has seen its purview expanded to include the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum. No less an authority than its former head Zhu Liang (朱良) has compared this rightward expansion to domestic UF work; the CCP’s ‘dialogues’ with parties from abroad indeed resemble the CPPCC. The China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT, 中国国际贸易促进委员会), linked to, e.g., recent subnational-level attempts to bypass Australia’s reticence towards Xi’s “Belt and Road,” frames its activity as “international UF work”, functioning as a sort of global version of domestic business associations.

International UF work straddles the borders between official and private, and between legal and illegal activity. The global activities of CEFC, an ostensibly private firm linked to a PLA front organization, illustrate this ambiguity. The company’s role in the cooptation of the Czech political elite has been covered in detail by Sinopsis. Beyond the Czech Republic, CEFC was among the entities working to engineer the installation of CCP discourse at the United Nations. CEFC’s “economic diplomacy” exposed the dark underbelly of BRI: bribes were used as liberally as more traditional interactions with “friends” of the CCP. The conferral of symbolic appointments characteristic of UF work is once again encountered in CEFC’s exchange of honorary ‘advisor,’ ‘consultant’ or ‘guest’ positions: the organization’s top brass has ‘advised’, or appointed as advisors, such figures as UN General Assembly presidents Vuk Jeremić, John Ashe and Sam Kutesa, Czech president Miloš Zeman, former Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili or, apparently, development guru Jeffrey Sachs.

More generally, the tactical logic behind UF thinking can be seen at play geopolitically. Positioning Eastern Europe as a more manageable tool for pressure on Western Europe under the ‘16+1’ arrangement and appropriating ‘South-South’ concepts to seek alliances in the Third World are among the best examples. Often subsumed under Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ geopolitical initiative, these interactions rely on the CCP’s methods of ‘friendly contact’ and UF cooptation of malleable political groups, businesses, think tanks and, importantly, academics and their institutions.

Coercion protects cooptation

Brady’s case combines the coercive and cooptive aspects of the CCP’s activity abroad. Brady’s study of the propaganda system and her recent work on global United Front have brought tactical arrangements only accessible through Party writings to a broader audience. In particular, her Magic Weapons paper, on New Zealand as a case study of the CCP’s operations, has revealed the remarkable success of UF work among the country’s elite.

The paper wasn’t universally welcome. Since its publication, burglars have stolen electronic devices from Brady’s home and office. Her car was tampered with in ways described as consistent with intentional sabotage. The months-long investigation of these attacks reportedly involves Interpol and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. Academics who hosted Brady in China have been interrogated by Ministry of State Security officials. State media in the PRC and New Zealand media under the CCP’s ‘guidance’ have carried attacks on Brady. It seems reasonable to interpret these events as a harassment campaign meant to intimidate Brady and others researching the CCP’s political influence. In other words, coercive measures seem directed to prevent the exposure of cooptation mechanisms.

Our letter, following a statement by a New Zealand Chinese community organization and three other local appeals, calls for an adequate response by local authorities to this harassment, and engagement with the substance of Brady’s research, so far not exactly forthcoming in New Zealand. It thus advocates scrutiny of both the coercive and the cooptive sides of the CCP’s control mechanisms.

Preserving the integrity of political systems depends on informed analysis of UF tactics able to vitiate them. Left unchallenged, these tactics can gradually undermine democratic governance, repurposing local institutions as tools of extraterritorial control. The New Zealand case is of unique interest for research on such tactics: in this democracy noted for its transparency, a donation from a prominent United Front figure was recently discussed in connection with a parliamentary candidacy for one of his associates; among political parties, the main beneficiary of UF-linked donations has been the one to echo CCP propaganda calling internment camps “vocational training centers.

The CCP’s effort to coerce analysts into silence greatly concerns the China specialist community, judging by the unexpected number of signatures the letter attracted. These concerns are hardly conjectural. A signatory, Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney, was detained and interrogated for ten days in Guangzhou in 2017. The Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who also signed, was detained in China 2016 and only released after a staged confession. Colleagues who expressed support for the contents of the letter chose not to sign, fearing, in one case, being refused a visa and, in another, being taken hostage in retaliation for the recent arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟).

Beyond solidarity with a fellow researcher and interest in New Zealand’s democracy, the extent to which the appeal has resonated within the Chinese studies community points to global concerns over Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the cooptive and coercive modes of its projection abroad.

Thanks to Kuan-chu Chou.