Seeing the CCP’s external influence work through Beijing’s eyes
26 Aug 2022|

The Chinese government’s aggression towards Taiwan has highlighted the range of powers and tools it wields. Alongside its show of military force, China has restricted trade with Taiwan, sought to promote its narrative on China–Taiwan–US relations, arrested at least one Taiwanese citizen, carried out cyberattacks against Taiwanese entities and cancelled engagements with the governments of the United States and Japan.

Many commentators have talked about these tools using familiar ideas like hybrid threats, grey-zone operations and information operations. But those concepts can be counterproductive unless policy and analysis are grounded in the ideas and structures that actually guide and organise them in Beijing. Understanding Beijing’s frameworks shows how much remains to be learned about how its external influence is interwoven with China’s international engagement. A failure to get on top of this will position policymakers to misinterpret and overlook key parts of China’s power and influence.

The recent history of awareness and research on the Chinese Communist Party’s external influence work shows why getting our concepts right is important. For years, China scholars such as Anne-Marie Brady, Feng Chongyi, John Fitzgerald, John Garnaut and Peter Mattis raised the alarm on the party’s efforts to influence, control and interfere in Chinese communities around the world. Much of this activity falls under the scope of the party’s ‘united front work’, the work of agencies seeking to co-opt and influence ‘representative figures’ and groups inside and outside China, with a particular focus on religious, ethnic minority and diaspora communities.

The tendency to try to fit this phenomenon under the umbrella of Western concepts of public diplomacy and soft power is part of what held governments back from understanding and responding to challenges posed by China’s united front work. Until recently, problems in diaspora communities seemed either trivial or unimportant to many governments, which only recently recognised how united front work harms social cohesion, undermines civil liberties and facilitates covert and clandestine operations.

United front work was misunderstood because it was often viewed as a form of public diplomacy, which is acceptable and practised by all governments. While united front work has superficial similarities to public diplomacy—it includes holding cultural events and open outreach to Chinese communities—its objectives, scope and covert aspects make it fundamentally different. For example, MI5 warned in January this year of an individual ‘seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics’ on behalf of the United Front Work Department.

‘United front work’ is now a household name, at least inside the world’s foreign-policy bubbles. An understanding of united front work was a key foundation for the initial Australian government response to foreign political interference. You can also find the term in records of parliamentary debates and even legislation. In February 2020, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that his time as CIA director taught him that the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries was ‘the public face of the Chinese Communist Party’s official foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department’.

While united front work is no longer ignored, the convenience of simplifying diverse kinds of external influence work to accord with our familiar concepts has continued. This has distorted how united front work is understood. As the prominence of united front work as a concept has grown, some scholars, commentators and policymakers have gone too far in treating it as a synonym for foreign interference or influence. Pompeo’s speech was one example of this—the friendship association he named has little to do with the United Front Work Department— but his formulation was only symptomatic of the way such issues have been framed by experts.

Part of this confusion comes from the many meanings of united front work. In one sense, the term refers to a tradition of influence work from the Chinese Civil War, focused on co-opting influential figures who can work in alignment with the CCP’s interests. This tradition is relevant to much of the CCP’s influence work.

But if we’re interested in understanding the different structures, goals and methods of CCP external influence today, then a narrower definition might be more useful. When party officials and state media refer to ‘united front work’ now, they are generally talking about activities guided by top-level coordinating bodies for, and recently codified party regulations on, united front work. In contrast, while the CCP’s International Liaison Department was once part of the United Front Work Department, the 70 years since its founding have seen it develop such that its methods deserve study in their own right, as distinct from united front work.

Though united front work frequently involves foreign interference, equating the two can obscure the uniquely troubling features of united front work, as well as the importance of all the party’s other forms of external influence. Activities we might label as grey-zone tactics, malign influence or information operations cover several distinct kinds of work and bureaucratic systems that permeate China’s engagement with the outside world.

At the highest levels of the party-state bureaucracy, work is assigned to overlapping interagency ‘systems’ organised along functional lines. The united front work system is particularly important, but the work of China’s foreign affairs, propaganda, military and civilian security systems can also intersect with Western definitions of foreign interference.

External influence is a core part of their work, and understanding this helped Australia formulate its strategy to counter foreign interference. For example, Czech counterintelligence service BIS assessed in 2015 that China’s International Liaison Department, primarily part of the foreign affairs system, was involved in ‘intelligence activities’. Australian police have accused a Chinese community figure of working with the Ministry of State Security, a civilian security agency, as part of a plan to carry out foreign political interference. The liaison bureau of the People’s Liberation Army’s Political Work Department has sought to cultivate and befriend retired foreign generals, American China scholars and Australian elites.

Understanding the structure of CCP agencies and work systems is anything but an academic issue—it has profound policy implications. Each system and agency has its own traditions, platforms, methods and goals. Responding to and assessing their activities requires an understanding of the purpose, structure and networks of each of them. Lumping various phenomena together as ‘information operations’ or ‘hybrid threats’ is a poor foundation for governments and researchers, especially since governments can use these concepts to guide internal resourcing and funding decisions. It risks drawing attention away from the role of professional intelligence agencies such as the Ministry of State Security. It can gloss over the important ways these influence systems interact with each other, and the weaknesses in the different methods they employ.

It’s certainly not a lack of available material that keeps policymakers from being informed by the party’s own thinking. Many scholars have written about these kinds of external influence activities and how they are organised, although much more research remains to be done.

An extensive library of official Chinese documents and doctrines is available to us, and analysis can help piece together even covert activities. As two scholars from the US Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute wrote earlier this year, what many call China’s ‘grey-zone operations’ has little basis in Chinese military writings. Working through authoritative sources allowed those analysts to explain how China’s concept of ‘peacetime employment of military force’ differs from ‘grey-zone operations’ in substantive ways. They point out that failing to appreciate China’s concept has led to a gap in our attention on a key part of the use-of-force spectrum: events short of a major war such as a Taiwan invasion but more forceful than the deadly June 2020 India–China border confrontation.

While we have PLA publications to help us understand these ideas, my forthcoming book on the Ministry of State Security’s influence operations seeks to demonstrate that careful scholarship also makes it possible to analyse the work and thinking of Chinese intelligence agencies. It also points to the fragmentary and incomplete state of our knowledge of CCP external influence. Arguably, research on China’s intelligence agencies has not advanced substantially in a decade.

Our own frameworks can be valuable for policymakers working on China—to the extent that they’re based on an understanding of the party’s own thinking. They’re important for communicating with the public and governments, especially when they have a legal basis or define the scope of government work. But confusing them for the party’s own guiding ideas introduces a barrier between policymakers and the actual activities they need to understand, a task only more pressing as China seeks to assert its influence on Taiwan and across the Pacific.