The party speaks for you: Foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s united front system
9 Jun 2020|

The United Front … is an important magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position … and an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.

— Chinese President Xi Jinping, Central United Front Work Conference, 2015

The Chinese Communist Party is strengthening its influence by co-opting representatives of ethnic minority groups, religious movements, and business, science and political groups in China and overseas. 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 runs these activities, known as united front work, but its role is often covert or deceptive.

In recent years, groups and individuals associated with the 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 on China’s behalf. 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 in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted overseas united front networks. In Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, Argentina, Japan and the Czech Republic, groups mobilised to gather increasingly scarce medical supplies from around the world and send them to China. Those efforts appear linked to directives from the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a united front agency. The party’s Central Committee has described the federation as ‘a bridge and a bond for the party and government to connect with overseas Chinese compatriots’. After the virus spread globally, united front groups began working with the CCP to donate supplies to the rest of the world and promote the party’s narratives about the pandemic.

Regardless of whether those activities harmed efforts to control the virus, they appeared to take governments by surprise and demonstrate the effectiveness of united front work. The CCP’s attempts to interfere in diaspora communities, influence political systems and covertly access valuable and sensitive technology will only grow as tensions between China and countries around the world develop. As governments begin to confront the CCP’s overseas interference and espionage, understanding the united front system will be crucially important.

My ASPI paper, released today, 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 and 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.

The united front system has nearly always been a core system of the CCP.  For most of its history it has been led by a member of the Politburo Standing Committee—the party’s top leadership body. However, General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasised united front work more than previous leaders, pushing it closer to the position of importance that it occupied in the party’s revolutionary era by elevating its status since 2015.

The scope of united front work is constantly evolving to reflect the CCP’s global ambitions, assessments of internal threats to its security, and conception of Chinese society.

The fact that the United Front is a political model and a way for the party to control political representation—the voices of groups targeted by united front work—means its overseas expansion is an exportation of the CCP’s political system. Overseas united front work taken to its conclusion would give the CCP undue influence over political representation and expression in foreign political systems.

Xi’s reinvigoration of this system underlines the need for stronger responses to CCP influence and technology-transfer operations around the world. However, governments are still struggling to manage it effectively and there is little publicly available analysis of the united front system. This lack of information can cause Western observers to underestimate the significance of the united front system and to reduce its methods into familiar categories. For example, diplomats might see united front work as ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘propaganda’ but fail to appreciate the extent of related covert activities. Security officials may be alert to criminal activity or espionage while underestimating the significance of open activities that facilitate it. Analysts risk overlooking the interrelated facets of CCP influence that combine to make it effective.

Governments should disrupt the CCP’s capacity to use united front figures and groups as vehicles for covert influence and technology transfer. They should begin by developing analytical capacity for understanding foreign interference. On that basis, they should issue declaratory policy statements that frame efforts to counter it. Countermeasures should involve law enforcement, legislative reform, deterrence and capacity building across relevant areas of government. Governments should mitigate the divisive effect united front work can have on diaspora communities through engagement and careful use of language.

Law enforcement, while critically important, shouldn’t be all or even most of the solution. Foreign interference often takes place in a grey area that’s difficult to address through law enforcement actions. Responses to united front work must engage civil society, media and ethnic Chinese communities. They should seek to couple punitive measures for agents of interference with a positive agenda of support for and engagement with communities affected by united front work. Effective efforts to counter foreign interference are essential to protect genuine participation in politics by ethnic Chinese citizens.