Three Reports on China’s Foreign Interference

The PRC’s international influence and interference efforts have attracted mounting attention and anxiety. Several of their hallmarks were on display in the recent trial in Stockholm of a former Swedish ambassador to China, who brokered a meeting between two Chinese businessmen and Angela Gui, daughter of the imprisoned Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. The case involves unofficial alleged intermediaries, the co-option of local elites, the intimidation of diasporic Chinese, and the attempted manipulation of global narratives regarding China. These and other tactics, their goals, and execution, were examined in three recent reports, from Alex Joske at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Matt Schrader at the German Marshall Fund of the United States‘ Alliance for Securing Democracy; and Amnesty Canada and the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China.

Joske’s report for ASPI, titled “The party speaks for you: Foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s united front system,” was released last week. It focuses on the work done by and on behalf of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, through an extensive array of formal and informal, overt and covert, and direct and indirect channels and intermediaries, to ensure the Party’s primacy over all aspects of Chinese society, broadly construed to include its diaspora and foreign relations. Although the UFWD has “nearly always been a core system of the CCP,” Joske writes, its role has expanded since 2015, particularly regarding diasporic, ethnic, and religious affairs. This includes a “central role in coordinating policy on Xinjiang, where the darkest side of the party’s political security efforts are on full display.” Joske emphasizes that the system makes “no clear distinction between overseas and domestic work,” because “the key distinction underlying the United Front is not between domestic and overseas groups, but between the CCP and everyone else.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is strengthening its influence by co‑opting representatives of ethnic minority groups, religious movements, and business, science and political groups. It claims the right to speak on behalf of those groups and uses them to claim legitimacy.

These efforts are carried out by the united front system, which is a network of party and state agencies responsible for influencing groups outside the party, particularly those claiming to represent civil society. It manages and expands the United Front, a coalition of entities working towards the party’s goals. The CCP’s role in this system’s activities, known as united front work, is often covert or deceptive.

The united front system’s reach beyond the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—such as into foreign political parties, diaspora communities and multinational corporations—is an exportation of the CCP’s political system. This undermines social cohesion, exacerbates racial tension, influences politics, harms media integrity, facilitates espionage, and increases unsupervised technology transfer.

[…] This paper dissects the CCP’s united front system and its role in foreign interference. It describes the broad range of agencies and goals of the united front system, rather than focusing only on the UFWD. It examines how the system is structured, how it operates, and what it seeks to achieve. It reveals how dozens of agencies play a role in the united front system’s efforts to transfer technology, promote propaganda, interfere in political systems and even influence executives of multinational companies. […] [Source]

The report includes two more detailed case studies on Huang Xiangmo, the Chinese businessman whose “active efforts to influence Australian politics became a catalyst for the Australian Government’s introduction of counter foreign interference legislation and his own expulsion from the country”; and on the British Chinese Group, whose “close links to the united front system call into question its independence and ability to genuinely represent ethnic Chinese”; as well as a brief guide to recognizing possible united front activity, given its often ambiguous and veiled nature.

Joske argues that “the lack of any clear distinction between domestic and overseas united front work means that changes in how that work is carried out in China could have important implications for foreign interference.” He suggests that increasingly unrestrained official actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere within Chinese jurisdiction “may foreshadow an increase in the brazenness, intolerance and intensity of united front work abroad, helped by the party’s increased ability to coordinate and direct that work.” Similar fears crystalized this week around the sentencing to death of Australian citizen Karm Gilespie for drug smuggling, and the announcement of espionage charges against Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Though all three are within China, their cases are widely seen as having been “weaponized” as foreign policy levers against their home countries amid broader political tensions.

ASPI hosted a discussion on the CCP’s overseas influence on Thursday with Joske, Sinopsis’ Martin Hála, the German Council on Foreign Relations’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Vision Times’ Maree Ma, and the International Cyber Policy Centre @ ASPI’s Danielle Cave.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded to the report during a regular press briefing last week:

Beijing Daily: According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a unit in China engages thousands of organizations to collect intelligence, making efforts to influence Chinese communities around the world and foreign elites to advance Beijing’s interests, which requires heightened vigilance from democratic countries. Do you have any comment on that report?

Hua Chunying: I don’t know what is the basis of this ASPI report, but I do know that some in Australia revealed in an article that this institute has long been receiving funds from the US government and arms dealers, and has been enthusiastic about cooking up and sensationalizing anti-China topics. It is so imbued with ideological prejudice that it becomes an anti-China “vanguard”, which leads to serious doubt on its academic integrity. It has also fabricated a fallacious report on so-called “Xinjiang-related issues”, making it a laughing stock in the world.

China has been developing foreign relations based on principles of mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Intervention has never been in the “genes” of China’s diplomacy, and has never been the type of thing we are good at. We hope external forces will stop hyping up such matters. [Source]

Joske’s report complements another, broader analysis of Chinese interference activities released in late April by Matt Schrader at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Friends and Enemies: A Framework for Understanding Chinese Political Interference in Democratic Countries” sets out five elements of interference with “deep roots in how the party governs China”: “weaponizing China’s economy”; “asserting narrative dominance”; “relying on elite intermediaries”; “instrumentalizing the Chinese diaspora”; and “embedding authoritarian control.” The report opens with the words of Chinese ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou—”For our friends, we produce fine wine. Jackals, we welcome with shotguns”—which introduce two core themes: the Party’s increasing international assertiveness, and its “tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies.”

The party has operationalized this mindset by developing a sophisticated set of tools and a well-defined body of doctrine to attempt to maintain unchallenged power by “uniting friends” and “isolating enemies.” This divide-and-conquer strategy is predicated not only on rewarding friends for their support, but also on coercing the party’s enemies. Within China, coercive tactics include: extralegal detention, limits on public and private speech by individual citizens, control of all forms of media and key sectors of the economy, and cooption of elites by establishing personal and professional costs for opposing the party.

This report describes how the party has increasingly employed many of these domestic tools to unite foreign friends and isolate foreign enemies. Ambassador Gui’s remarks are but one example in an expanding universe of cases. The threat of losing business in China means that foreign corporations are routinely pressed to censor themselves and their employees to avoid topics the party considers sensitive. Meanwhile, Chinese companies have built and sold the party’s tools of digital authoritarianism in South America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Chinese diplomats have also tried to rally other countries in support of greater governmental control over the flow of digital information inside national borders. In Southeast Asia, party-state linked actors have sought to covertly alter the outcome of elections throughout Southeast Asia, combining cyberespionage prowess with the financial firepower of the PRC’s enormous policy banks. And the party has used the same vision of triumphant ethnic solidarity it pushes on its own population to justify its attempts to threaten, censor, and co-opt the Chinese diaspora. In so doing, the party hopes to influence democratic politicians and politics by controlling the external narrative presented of China. [Source]

Schrader later cites U.S. cybersecurity official Rob Joyce, who “likens Russia’s approach to a hurricane—quick, violent, and localized—but compares China’s approach to the ‘long, slow, and pervasive’ process of climate change.” Schrader’s own conclusion is that “foreign countries must focus on mitigating the impacts of Chinese interference because reversing these activities is impractical. […] As with climate change, even successful risk mitigation will not bring a return to the status quo ante.”

One notable area of overlap between the two papers is the role of private companies, a topic of particular concern given cases like Huawei’s prospective role in global 5G network deployments; the enormous popularity of Bytedance’s TikTok social video app among young Westerners; and videoconferencing platform Zoom’s ties to China, given its prevalence among remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and its recent temporary suspension of Chinese activists’ accounts. Joske writes that “both Chinese and foreign private enterprises are increasingly targeted by united front work,” noting that “, one of the world’s largest e‑commerce companies, is an official pilot site for united front work in private companies. In 2018, CEO Richard Liu announced the establishment of two united front groups within”

Schrader, meanwhile, writes that:

[…] The party understands the importance of markets to economic and technological dynamism. It has thus allowed private business to grow and flourish since 1978. At the same time, however, it has gone to great lengths to ensure that those parts of the economy not directly controlled by the state can function as vehicles for its will. This “guidance” of private businesses occurs through legal and regulatory channels, as well as through party channels. This includes the direct establishment of party cells inside private companies and an opaque, elaborate system of consultative mechanisms known as the United Front.

Through this sophisticated combination of overlapping governance structures, the party provides private businesses with a mix of inducements and punishments. This allows the party to convey the overall message that business opportunities arise from compliance with the party’s political vision, and that non-compliance can result in the loss of opportunities. In describing the political dynamic for private businesses in the Xi Jinping era, Wang Xiaochuan, the head of an important Chinese internet company (and a member of the country’s most important United Front consultative body) said: “If you see the situation clearly and are able to move in sync with the state, you will get great support. But if it’s in your nature to say, ‘I want freedom, I want to sing a tune different from the state’s, then you might suffer, more so than in the past.” [Source]

Both authors also devote considerable attention to the CCP’s proprietary attitude to overseas Chinese communities, the pressure they face as a result, and the danger that they will be adversely affected by efforts to counter PRC interference. These pressures come on top of others, such as widespread racist violence fueled in part by scapegoating for the pandemic’s origins. Schrader writes:

[The Party’s] view of ethnicity and nationality undermines individual choice and threatens diaspora communities’ integration abroad. If not approached in a thoughtful and transparent manner, efforts to combat targeting of the Chinese diaspora can themselves undermine trust with diaspora communities. Poorly designed or communicated enforcement efforts that appear to unfairly target individuals of Chinese descent can feed into party narratives. By targeting overseas Chinese communities, the party makes it difficult to disentangle its own influence from accusations of racism. This can muddy public discourse by producing divisive debates and distracting attention from the party’s foreign influence.

[…] The Australian debate demonstrates the corrosive nature of China’s diaspora policies. The party can insulate itself by influencing politicians, and illegally acquiring science and technology through diaspora intermediaries. Instrumentalizing the Chinese diaspora in this way complicates conversations about race and loyalty, thereby undermining social cohesion. [Source]

Similarly, from Joske:

Ethnic Chinese communities are a focus of united front work. In activities directed at diaspora communities, the CCP seeks to co‑opt, control and install community leaders, community groups, business associations and media. It seeks to collapse the diversity of Chinese communities into a fictional homogeneous and ‘patriotic’ group united under the party’s leadership. Successful united front work wedges the party between ethnic Chinese communities and the societies they live in, expanding the party’s control of those communities’ channels for representation and mobilisation. Members of Chinese communities who want to participate in community activities may unwittingly become associated with united front groups. Combined with the party’s surveillance and censorship of the Chinese social media app WeChat, this has smothered independent Chinese media outlets and community groups.

Interference in Chinese communities harms genuine and independent political participation in politics by ethnic Chinese. In countries such as Australia, where united front work is quite mature, it’s proven difficult for politicians to avoid associating with united front groups and implicitly legitimising them as representatives of the broader Chinese community. For example, both major party candidates for a seat in parliament during the 2019 Australian federal election had reportedly either been members of united front groups or had travelled on united‑front‑sponsored trips to China. Both contenders for leadership of the NSW Labor Party in 2019 had attended events run by united‑front‑linked groups. [Source]

Joske’s recommendations include heavy emphasis on supporting and engaging local Chinese communities in both the design and framing of counterinterference policy: he advocates improved support for victims of political harassment; support for independent Chinese community and civil society groups and local media; careful public messaging on PRC interference to avoid backlash against local Chinese communities; and exploration of “ways to ensure freedom of speech and freedom from surveillance on WeChat, including through legislation.”

The third report, “Harassment & Intimidation of Individuals in Canada Working on China-related Human Rights Concerns: An Update as of March 2020,” from Amnesty Canada and the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, followed an earlier investigation from 2017. It also comes after the heavily redacted public release in March of a report from Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, focused partly on foreign interference in Canada with China prominently if sometimes implicitly featured. The NSICOP report noted that “the PRC’s legislative framework directs all Chinese entities and individuals to contribute to state security,” describing this as an “all-encompassing strategy […] rooted in China’s fundamental approach to statecraft and international relations.” However, it also stressed that Chinese-Canadians and Chinese in Canada are often victims rather than instruments of this approach.

Amnesty and the CCHRC provide several examples in the new report “of a longstanding trend of incidents that are consistent with a Chinese state-sponsored campaign, and which have plagued communities of Tibetan-Canadians, Uighur-Canadians, Falun Gong practitioners, Hong Kong-Canadians, pro-democracy activists, and other human rights defenders working on China-related human rights issues for years.” (They acknowledge, however, that “in many of the cases highlighted in this report, Chinese authorities cannot be directly implicated.”) One key trend they highlight since the original publication is “an increased incidence of interference, harassment and intimidation on university campuses and in the realm of academia, with a noticeable mobilization of Chinese international students.” They also warn, though, that these students themselves are sometimes victims of manipulation. In the case of clashing demonstrations in support of against mass protests in Hong Kong last year, for example, “in talking with counter-protestors […], UBC Hong Kong organizers learned that many of the Chinese students were mobilizing and demonstrating on the basis of misinformation and propaganda relayed by Chinese state media sources about the nature of the Hong Kong protests.” While noting that the PRC has used the demographic “critical mass” of people with mainland Chinese origins “to create a dominant pro-Beijing and nationalistic sentiment in the Chinese-Canadian community,” the report also stresses that “the broad community of Canadians with Chinese origins, both those from Hong Kong and those from mainland China, are far from having a unified view on the issue, which has been reflected in events that have transpired in Canada as well.”

From the report:

The Chinese government has long pursued a strategy of extending political and cultural influence abroad, with the goal of suppressing dissidents and mobilizing overseas Chinese communities to act as agents of China’s political interests. In Canada, Chinese authorities have exerted influence within various communities in the country, on elected officials, Chinese-Canadian media outlets, social media, and academic institutions.

[…] The pattern of harassment and intimidation outlined in this report is part of a longstanding trend of incidents that are consistent with a systematic campaign targeting human rights defenders in Canada who take action on human rights concerns in China, in which there is direct and indirect involvement by the Chinese government or its agents. This report highlights that the situation may well be worsening: Chinese state actors have almost certainly become emboldened by the inadequate responses of Canadian officials (and officials in other countries faced with similar concerns), as incidents of interference have become increasingly pervasive

The Canadian government must treat this issue with increased urgency, as it has resulted in insecurity and fear for human rights defenders in Canada working on Chinese human rights issues, as well as an unacceptable chilling effect on the exercise of free expression and other civil liberties and fundamental freedoms in the country. To date, responses from Canadian authorities have been piecemeal and largely ineffective in compiling a comprehensive picture of what is happening and addressing the source of the intimidation and harassment faced by human rights defenders.

[…] The issue of Chinese interference in Canada had previously been addressed by parliamentarians in October 2018, when Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo, alongside Conservative Senator Victor Oh, Liberal MP Joyce Murray and NDP MP Don Davies, co-sponsored a panel discussion on the topic. A summary report from the discussion determined that “examples of Chinese interference at Canadian universities […] are few and far between”, and that “while there is undoubtedly an effort on the part of the CCP to enlist ethnic Chinese living outside of Canada as supporters of PRC government views, it is unclear that such efforts have had any meaningful impact in Canada”. 58 The report also concluded that fears of UFWD infiltration in the Canadian Chinese community were overblown, and that the Canadian government needed to learn from experiences in the United States and Australia in order to calibrate its response and avoid the excesses, sensationalism and stigmatization that have supposedly characterized the Chinese interference debate in those countries. 59 Moreover, the summary suggested that “Canada already has the toolkit to deal with cases of Chinese interference in Canada, and that security and intelligence officials have already been taking action, albeit without the glare of publicity that has characterized such cases in other countries. […] the Canadian government should ensure that the relevant agencies have sufficient resources to employ those tools fully and firmly”. 60 Given the ongoing concerns revolving around Chinese interference and the lack of adequate action from the Canadian government that are raised by the present report, it is not clear what toolkit was being referred to, and what action has been taken by security and intelligence officials. The conclusions of this report have been heavily criticized by members of the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China for being inaccurate, incomplete and misleading. [Source]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.