The threat posed by China has become evident with the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic. While the West has dithered to check the rise of the authoritarian state, it can no longer afford to do so as China threatens to challenge western supremacy. Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the extensive efforts China has made to interfere in the internal matters of other countries. In this regard, the apparatus that facilitates such interference, the United Front system, has largely escaped escaped attention.
Here, we shall focus on the United Front system and the mechanism of its functioning. We shall rely primarily on a report prepared by Alex Joske, an analyst working with the International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that was published in June 2020. The report titled ‘The party speaks for you’ provides in-depth information on the United Front system.
The United Front system (UFS) is basically a network of party and state agencies which is responsible for influencing groups and entities outside the party and tasked with the management of the United Front (UF). The UF, in turn, is a coalition of entities that works towards furthering the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
It is through the UFS that the CCP interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, often fomenting chaos and anarchy through its propaganda that incites racial tensions and fuels division. It also encourages espionage and technology theft from global tech companies. Chinese president Xi Jinping has focused his attention in recent times on strengthening the institution, the report says, and it is due to this reason combined with China’s ambition for global dominance that makes a closer inspection of the UFS so necessary.
The report says, “In recent years, groups and individuals linked to the CCP’s United Front have attracted an unprecedented level of scrutiny for their links to political interference, economic espionage and influence on university campuses. In Australia, businessmen who were members of organisations with close ties to the United Front Work Department (UFWD) have been accused of interfering in Australian politics. In the US, at least two senior members of united front groups for scientists have been taken to court over alleged technology theft.”
“Confucius Institutes, which are overseen with heavy involvement from the UFWD, have generated controversy for more than a decade for their effects on academic freedom and influence on universities. Numerous Chinese students and scholars associations, which are united front groups for Chinese international students, have been involved in suppressing academic freedom and mobilising students for nationalistic activities,” it adds.
The report further states that the UFS “helps the CCP claim legitimacy, mobilise its supporters and manage perceived threats”. Furthermore, “It also oversees the CCP-led political model of ‘multiparty cooperation and political consultation’ that’s been in place since 1949.” The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) provides the platform for such consultation and is chaired by the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the UFS.
The director of the UFWD was quoted in the report as saying, “The United Front is a political alliance, and united front work is political work. It must maintain the party’s leadership throughout, having the party’s flag as its flag, the party’s direction as its direction, and the party’s will as its will, uniting and gathering members of each part of the United Front around the party.”
While the work of the UFS is constantly changing to reflect the shifting goals of the CCP, in recent times, its work has revolved around increasing “CCP’s political influence, interfering in the Chinese diaspora, suppressing dissident movements, building a permissive international environment for a takeover of Taiwan, intelligence gathering, encouraging investment in China, and facilitating technology transfer.”
It is important to note here that the UFS works both domestically and overseas. Within China’s borders, its primary responsibility is ensuring that every section of Chinese society finds political representation only through CCP controlled platforms so that the authority of the CCP is never undermined. Abroad, it works to strengthen China’s efforts towards global domination.
A United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission report in 2018 stated, “United Front work serves to promote Beijing’s preferred global narrative, pressure individuals living in free and open societies to self-censor and avoid discussing issues unfavourable to the CCP, and harass or undermine groups critical of Beijing’s policies.”
The UFWD has different bureaus working under itself that caters to specific needs. There are the ones for Xinjiang and Tibet. Other than that, there are the ‘Ethnic Affairs Work Bureau’, ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau’, ‘Religious Work Bureau’ among others. As per the report, agencies that are involved in UF work include the Propaganda Department, the Organisation Department, the Ministry of Education, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and the Ministry of State Security (PRC’s civilian intelligence agency).
The groups targeted by UF work include private businesses and urban professionals apart from overseas and returned overseas students. The individuals are targeted not merely to neutralise any opposition but also to turn them into conduits for CCP’s strategic interests. There is also no clear distinction between the UF’s domestic and overseas work. All the bureaus of the UF and all activities usually involves both domestic and overseas work.
There is little consensus as yet regarding how precisely to tackle the menace or combat it. There is also the very conspicuous threat that the CCP is basically attempting to use the Chinese diaspora to undermine the country they are residing in. For instance, when US President Donald Trump blamed China for the coronavirus crisis and called the virus ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’, the CCP accused him of being racist towards the Chinese.
The report by Alex Joske makes the recommendation: “Political leaders should improve how they frame efforts to counter foreign interference, making clear that they are not targeting minority communities, and seek to publicly attribute major cases of foreign interference.” Such recommendations elucidate perfectly the extent of the threat that it poses.
In future reports, we will delve further into the United Front, its history and the ties that Xi Jinping himself has had with it. We will also look at the propaganda work that it conducts and its mode of operation.