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How China’s United Front System Works Overseas

May 23rd, 2022 14:27

The Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (ASPI), an Aus­tralian think tank, recent­ly pub­lished a report exam­in­ing the Chi­nese government’s unit­ed front sys­tem and its for­eign-fac­ing role, high­light­ing exam­ples of its activ­i­ties in Europe and North Amer­i­ca. Accord­ing to a report by the Strategist:

April 13, 2022 One of the unit­ed front system’s most impor­tant tasks is to shape inter­na­tion­al pub­lic opin­ion of China—through both elite cap­ture and pub­lic diplo­ma­cy. Some­times, this influ­ence is exer­cised overt­ly. In Jan­u­ary 2022, for exam­ple, the Unit­ed Kingdom’s secu­ri­ty ser­vice warned that a solic­i­tor affil­i­at­ed with the unit­ed front sys­tem had donat­ed £420,000 to a British MP. In oth­er cas­es, unit­ed front affil­i­ates have offered for­eign politi­cians cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, engaged direct­ly in lob­by­ing and made sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments in over­seas media out­lets.  More often, how­ev­er, the unit­ed front sys­tem prefers to oper­ate with some plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty, by fund­ing or co-opt­ing inter­est groups designed to pro­mote sol­i­dar­i­ty among mem­bers of the Chi­nese dias­po­ra. In some cas­es, these organisations—such as trade guilds, stu­dent groups and ‘friend­ship associations’—engage in polit­i­cal activ­i­ty designed to shield the CCP from crit­i­cism, or to protest poli­cies unfavourable to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. In the US and UK, for exam­ple, Chi­nese stu­dent and schol­ar asso­ci­a­tions have pres­sured uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors to can­cel vis­its from the Dalai Lama, counter-protest the CCP’s annex­a­tion of Hong Kong and cen­sor art­work crit­i­cis­ing the party’s actions in Xin­jiang. […] Although many organ­i­sa­tions affil­i­at­ed with the unit­ed front sys­tem are not direct­ly con­trolled by the CCP or Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, they are best viewed as gov­ern­ment-organ­ised non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions (GON­GOs). These groups also aid in the unit­ed front system’s sec­ond major over­seas mission—monitoring the activ­i­ties of the Chi­nese dias­po­ra and silenc­ing dis­si­dents based abroad. In 2020 and 2021, for exam­ple, the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion and Cana­di­an Secu­ri­ty Intel­li­gence Ser­vice both warned that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was using ‘state enti­ties and non-state prox­ies’ to ‘threat­en and intim­i­date’ activists and Chi­nese dis­si­dents in the US and Canada.

Read the rest here.

The ASPI report con­cludes that many of the unit­ed front activ­i­ties are best described as ‘grey zone’ oper­a­tions and that lib­er­al democ­ra­cies should coor­di­nate and think of nov­el ways to blunt the impact of China’s for­eign influ­ence operations.

The Unit­ed Front Work Depart­ment is a lit­tle-known Bei­jing-based agency with world­wide branch­es. It uses an exten­sive net­work of asso­ci­a­tions, busi­ness groups, friend­ship soci­eties, and cul­tur­al groups to ensure the loy­al­ty of its over­seas cit­i­zens and oth­ers of eth­nic Chi­nese descent. Accord­ing to a US gov­ern­ment report, Unit­ed Front work pro­motes Beijing’s pre­ferred glob­al nar­ra­tive by pres­sur­ing indi­vid­u­als liv­ing in free and open soci­eties to self-cen­sor and avoid dis­cussing issues unfa­vor­able to the CCP and harass­ing or under­min­ing groups crit­i­cal of Beijing’s poli­cies. The Glob­al Influ­ence Oper­a­tions Report has exten­sive­ly cov­ered unit­ed front activ­i­ties over­seas. Recent report­ing has included:

  • In May, we report­ed on a NATO study iden­ti­fy­ing the unit­ed front net­works as one of eight “avenues of influ­ence” Chi­na uses to influ­ence the infor­ma­tion environment.
  • In Jan­u­ary, we report­ed that Britain’s inter­nal intel­li­gence agency MI5 said a well-known lawyer in London’s Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty was know­ing­ly engaged in polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence activ­i­ties on behalf of the Unit­ed Front Work Department.
  • In Novem­ber, we report­ed that units in the unit­ed front sys­tems are key actors in efforts to coopt par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, polit­i­cal par­ties, local offi­cials, and main­stream voic­es in think tanks and the media in Italy.