Estonian parties in the CCP’s grip: The International Liaison Department’s influence activities

Brief for the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security, in cooperation with Sinopsis.

With the exception of a series of articles in Postimees in 2019, China’s influence in Estonia has not been studied before.1 There is every reason to study the subject, as the company Powerhouse, which lobbies on behalf of the Chinese company Huawei, employs three former Estonian ministers, whose abundant contacts provide access to the corridors of power and, as exemplified by Marko Pomerants, also to the closed-door Question Time in the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament).2

China’s influence activities include propaganda work (宣传工作), which paints a positive picture of China and rejects any criticism.3 This was vividly illustrated in the “mask diplomacy” at the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, which was used in an attempt to create the image of a responsible partner. To fend off criticism, the European External Action Service unit tackling disinformation was pressured by China to alleviate accusations of China spreading misinformation.4

Influence activities also include united front work (统一战线工作), the idea for which originates from the Bolsheviks, who created temporary strategic alliances with other political parties and movements in order to grab power in Russia and trigger a global communist revolution. The Communist Party of China (CCP) used the same tactic to take power in China by alternately allying with and against the Nationalist Party (KMT).5 Today, the united front’s foreign activities largely consist of employing the Chinese diaspora, but also the elite of foreign countries, for the benefit of the CCP, as has been thoroughly studied in New Zealand, Australia and the Czech Republic.6

In Estonia’s neighbourhood, striking examples can be found in Finland and Sweden, where the united front has organised the Chinese diaspora to defend China’s interests on issues concerning islands in the South and East China Seas, the Hong Kong protests and Taiwan. The Finns Party’s MPs Mika Niikko and Ville Vähämäki are founding members of the technology company Realmax, whose CEO, Si Hang 斯航, supported Niikko’s election campaign with €5,000. In addition, Jenni Chen-Ye (陈燕妮) concealed her ties with a Finnish united front organisation when she ran for the Vantaa council.7 Influence activities also include foreign affairs work (外事工作/对外工作), which, according to Song Tao 宋涛, Minister of the CCP Central Committee’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 中央对外联络部), is a symbiosis of party, public sector and NGO diplomacy that essentially consists of four grips (抓)—political parties (政党), research (调研), contacts (人脉) and image (形象)—which can be used to promote foreign relations and a positive image of the party to the international community, and through which central authorities can learn from foreign experience.8

The International Liaison Department

The history of the ILD is closely linked to the history of the CCP’s foreign relations, as upon its creation in 1951 it was led by Wang Jiaxiang (王稼祥, 1906–74), who studied in Moscow and served as an ambassador. It is understood that the predecessor of the ILD was the Communications Office (交通局), which was formed in 1927 and was responsible for communicating with the Comintern and other partners and tried to export the revolution to other parts of Asia through the Chinese diaspora.9 In January 2011, before Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the CCP, he spoke at a meeting dedicated to the 90th anniversary of foreign affairs work (as old as the CCP) and the 60th anniversary of the ILD, saying that the latter was established to be responsible for the CCP’s relations with foreign parties. Xi stressed that the party’s foreign affairs work had an important role in total diplomacy (总体外交), as it allowed the party to build a positive image on the international stage, to gather information and to support the central authorities in decision-making.10

Today, the ILD is interested not in exporting the communist revolution but in establishing contacts with foreign political elites who will support the CCP’s policies in their countries and help create an international consensus on issues important to China.11 On Taiwan, for example, inter-party relations are particularly useful with countries that do not have formal relations with Beijing.12 The biggest achievement for the department is the widespread support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea, which was approved by more than 240 parties and 280 think-tanks and NGOs.13 In addition, the ILD collects intelligence and may recruit agents.14 In the 2015 report of the Czech Security Information Service (BIS) it is said that the ILD, which focuses on international relations and intelligence activities, complemented Chinese military intelligence in its activities.15 The ILD is active in Central and Eastern European countries. Czech politicians often meet ILD officials during their visits to China and have hosted them at the China Investment Forum in Prague, coorganised by the ILD since 2015.16 After a National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NÚKIB) report criticising Huawei, the leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Vojtěch Filip, went on a fact-finding mission to China, where he met ILD Vice Minister Guo Yezhou 郭业洲. After his return, Filip defended Huawei in the media, contradicting the NÚKIB threat assessment.17

The ILD’s ability to penetrate came to light when a delegation led by ILD Vice Minister Wang Yajun 王亚军 visited Iceland, where local politicians had the impression of a courtesy visit while the ILD presented it as an introduction of Xi Jinping’s Thought to Icelandic parties. The meetings also discussed the Belt and Road Initiative and human rights, and China had the opportunity to present its vision, in which economic development is more important than fundamental rights, to a member state of the UN Human Rights Council at the time.18

The ILD’s Four Grips

The ILD website describes the department in terms of its four “grips”, one of which is the grip on political parties (抓政党). To date, the CCP has established relations with more than 600 political parties and organisations in 160 countries.19 The former ILD Minister and current Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Wang Jiarui 王家瑞, said that high-level exchanges with foreign parties, whose members are a source for policy planning and public opinion, represent the nature of preventive diplomacy (预防性外交), strategic communication (战略性沟通) and far-reaching influence (深远性影响).20

The ILD established relations with the Estonian Social Democratic Party (SDE) in December 2008.21 According to Randel Länts, the then General Secretary of the party, the exchanges started when he visited China with the European Socialists and received an invitation for the SDE to visit.22 Länts was probably referring to the delegation of young politicians led by Philip Cordery, Secretary General of the Party of European Socialists, that met with Oyunchimeg (乌云其木格), Vice Chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and ILD Minister Wang Jiarui between 4 and 10 December.23 In April 2009, ILD Vice Minister Chen Fengxiang 陈凤翔 met with the Speaker of the Riigikogu, the Estonian foreign minister and representatives of the SDE and the Centre Party in Tallinn.24 In December the same year, an SDE delegation led by the party’s Deputy Leader, Indrek Saar, paid a return visit to China, where they met the Politburo member and Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Wang Gang 王刚, and the ILD Minister, Wang Jiarui, and Vice Minister Liu Hongcai 刘洪才.25 According to Peeter Kreitzberg, a member of the delegation, the Chinese had previously expressed a wish to sign a cooperation agreement between the CCP and the SDE, but the delegation to China did not have the party’s authority to sign.26

In addition to bilateral meetings, the ILD organises forums for foreign political parties, where, besides establishing relations, it can present the CCP’s policies and governance principles in order to create a positive international image of the Party. The ILD calls this activity its image grip (抓形象).27

The ILD organised the “Meeting of Political Parties from China and CEE” (中国- 中东欧政党对话会) in Budapest in 2016 and Bucharest in 2017; the latter was opened by Liu Yunshan 刘云山, the fifth-ranking official in the Politburo Standing Committee, who was in charge of the ideological machinery at the time. This was a prelude to the ILD’s global political party dialogue, which was attended by 300 parties from 120 countries; the dialogue culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Initiative, which outlines a China-centric new world order.28 In May 2010, representatives of the Estonian Reform Party and the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) participated in the first China–Europe High Level Political Parties Forum.29 Here, the leader of the Party of the European Left and the EUL/NGL,30 Lothar Bisky, criticised the selective coverage of China in the Western and European media. The then prime minister of Latvia, now a European Commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis said that Europe and China should work together to create a new global financial system and learn from each other on how to strengthen supervision of financial markets and the internal market.31

Kalev Kallo, Chairman of Estonia-China Parliamentary Group, meets ILD Vice Minister Qian Hongshan, October 2019. Source: ILD.
Kalev Kallo, Chairman of Estonia-China Parliamentary Group, meets ILD Vice Minister Qian Hongshan, October 2019. Source: ILD.

The grip on contacts (抓人脉) is responsible for developing people-to-people relations and creating a network of contacts for China’s healthy and stable external relations.32 Wang Jiarui interprets this as informal exchanges with China-minded governing and opposition parties, political organisations, think-tanks, the media, NGOs and countries with which China has no diplomatic or party-level relations, in order to consistently cultivate people who know China and are friendly to the Chinese, with the aim of finding a common language and mutual understanding.33 Among Estonian politicians, Kalev Kallo, a member of the Centre Party and at the time deputy head of the then Estonian–Chinese friendship group, participated in the China–Europe High-Level Political Parties Forum in 2011 and 2013.34 In 2016, Randel Länts of the SDE, who currently heads government relations for the consultancy company Miltton, took part in the forum. Miltton is known for providing PR services for the Chinese embassy in Tallinn.35 The 2013 forum was also attended by Charles Michel, leader of the Belgian party Reformist Movement, who became prime minister of Belgium in 2014 and president of the European Council in 2019.36 The Forum of Young Political Leaders of Central and Eastern Europe held in Beijing at the end of October 2015 was attended by Mailis Reps, a board member of the Estonian Centre Party, who has been the Minister of Education and Research since 2016.37

The research grip (抓调研) refers to the need to supply the central government with information on international relations and regional developments, party politics and changes in societies.38 On 7 May 2014, a delegation from the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee, led by its chairman Marko Mihkelson, met in Beijing with Zhou Li (周力), Vice Minister of the ILD, to discuss, among other things, the situation in Ukraine.39 It is important for China to know how the US and its allies are responding to Russia’s aggression in Europe; this helps Beijing plan its actions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus with ILD Vice Minister Zhou Li, January 2015. Source: ILD.
Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus with ILD Vice Minister Zhou Li, January 2015. Source: ILD.

According to Wang Jiarui, researching and monitoring international developments will allow China to take the initiative on issues that are important to it in order to propose a “China Solution” (中国方案).40 At a meeting with Estonian foreign minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus in Beijing in January 2015, Zhou Li said that he wanted to deepen contacts with the Reform Party and exchange experiences of governance. Zhou Li introduced the Belt and Road Initiative, which the foreign minister found useful for all participating countries.41

It is a mistake to think that China’s foreign policy is pursued only by the foreign ministry. The ILD has been in active contact with various Estonian political parties in order to influence local developments. Estonian politicians should be aware of the CCP’s goals in establishing foreign contacts if they want to protect society from external influence, to adhere to the requirement of transparency, and to avoid being caught in the CCP’s grip.

This brief was originally published in Estonian and English by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute (EFPI) at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS):

Hiina mõjutustegevus Eestis”, ICDS, 17 Septemper 2020.

China’s influence activities in Estonia”, ICDS, 25 September 2020.

Republished with permission, with minor edits.

Frank Jüris is a junior researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and a non-resident research fellow at Sinopsis. His research focuses on China’s domestic and foreign policy, EU-China relations, China’s relations with the Central and Eastern European countries in the 16+1 format, and Sino-Russian relations. His recent policy brief “Handing over infrastructure for China’s strategic objectives: ‘Arctic Connect’ and the Digital Silk Road in the Arctic” discussed the security implications of PRC involvement in an undersea cable project.

  1. Holger Roonemaa, Mari Eesmaa and Sabīne Bērziņa, “Trojan panda. The heavy hand of Chinese soft power”, Postimees, 4 September 2019; Roonemaa, Eesmaa and Inese Liepiņa, “Chinese intelligence increasingly setting sights on Estonia”, Postimees, 5 September 2019; eidem, “Chinese investments come with golden handcuffs”, Postimees, 6 September 2019.↩︎

  2. Roonemaa, “Huawei tagauks Eestis. Appi palgati valitsusele lähedased eksministrid” [Huawei’s back door in Estonia. Ex-ministers close to the government were hired to assist], EPL, 13 February 2020; Andres Einmann, “Isamaa Huawei-ohu koosolekul osales Huawei lobist” [Huawei lobbyist attends Pro Patria meeting discussing Huawei danger], Postimees, 21 February 2020.↩︎

  3. See also: Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing dictatorship: Propaganda and thought work in contemporary China, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016; David Shambaugh, “China’s Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy”, The China Journal 57 (January 2007), pp. 25–58.↩︎

  4. Euroopa Komisjon nimetas Hiinat otsesõnu desinformatsiooni levitajaks” [European Commission expressly calls China a disseminator of disinformation], ERR, 10 June 2020.↩︎

  5. Gerry Groot, Managing transitions: the Chinese Communist Party’s united front work, minor parties and groups, hegemony and corporatism, PhD thesis, University of Adelaide, 1997; Jichang Lulu, “United Frontlings Always Win”, China Heritage, 25 September 2017.↩︎

  6. Anne-Marie Brady, “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping”, Wilson Centre, September 2017; Alex Joske, “The Party speaks for you”, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2020; Martin Hála, “United Front Work by Other Means: China’s ‘Economic Diplomacy’ in Central and Eastern Europe”, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation) 19:9, 9 May 2019.↩︎

  7. Matti Puranen, “China-Finland: Beijing’s ‘Model Relationship’ in Europe?”, The Diplomat, 29 February 2020; Päivi Koskinen and Kirsi Skön, “Kiinan „taika-ase” tähtää Suomeenkin” [China’s “magic weapon” targets Finland too], YLE, 15 March 2020; eaedem, “Kokoomus erotti Kiinan kontrolliverkostoon sotkeutuneen kaupunginvaltuutettunsa Vantaalla – „Päätös oli yksimielinen”” [National Coalition Party dismisses Vantaa city councillor stuck in Chinese control network – “The decision was unanimous”], YLE, 23 March 2020; Skön, “Perussuomalainen Kiina-ilmiö: käsikirjoitus” [The Chinese phenomenon in the Finns: manuscript], YLE, 16 March 2020; Pär Nyrén, “Kinesiska Kommunistpartiets enhetsfront” [The Communist Party of China’s United Front], Stockholm Free World Forum, 29 May 2020; Pär Nyrén, “The CCP’s United Front Network in Sweden”, China Brief 20:16, 16 September 2020.↩︎

  8. Song Tao 宋涛, “人民日报:不断推进党的对外工作理论和实践创新” (People’s Daily: Continuously promote the innovation of the party’s foreign affairs work theory and practice), People’s Daily, 28 September 2019.↩︎

  9. David Shambaugh, “China’s ‘quiet diplomacy’: The International Department of the Chinese Communist Party”, China: An International Journal 5:1 (2007), pp. 26–54 [34–5].↩︎

  10. 习近平强调:党的对外工作要继往开来再创辉煌” [Xi Jinping stressed that the party’s foreign affairs work must restore the historical splendour through the past], 15 April 2011. On total diplomacy, see Brady, Making the foreign serve China: Managing foreigners in the People’s Republic}, Rowman & Littlefield}, 2003, p. 199.↩︎

  11. Julia G. Bowie, “International Liaison Work for the New Era: Generating Global Consensus?”, in David Gitter et al. (eds.), Party Watch Annual Report 2018, Center for Advanced China Research, 18 October 2018.↩︎

  12. Gitter and Bowie, “The Chinese Communist Party International Department: [Advancing “One China” Behind the Scenes]”, Global Taiwan Brief 1:2, 28 September 2016.↩︎

  13. Bowie, “International Liaison Work for the New Era”, op. cit.↩︎

  14. Shambaugh, “China’s ‘quiet diplomacy’”, p. 30; Brady, “Magic Weapons”, p.5.↩︎

  15. Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála, “A new Comintern for the New Era: The CCP International Department from Bucharest to Reykjavík”, Sinopsis, 16 August 2018; “Annual Report of the Security Information Service for 2015”, BIS, 1 September 2016, p. 9.↩︎

  16. Martin Hála, “Between the European Union and Eurasia: 16+1 and China’s Reenactment of Eastern Europe”, in Hsu Szu-chien & J. Michael Cole (eds), Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy, Manchester, UK: Eastbridge Books, 2020; Janek Kroupa and Zdislava Pokorná, “Čína lovila české poslance před klíčovým summitem. Byli za tím její zpravodajci” [China hunted Czech MPs before key summit. Its intelligence agents were behind it], Seznam Zprávy, 26 February 2020.↩︎

  17. Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu, “The importance of Friendly Contacts: The New Comintern to Huawei’s rescue”, Sinopsis, 24 January 2019.↩︎

  18. Lulu & Hála, “A new Comintern for the New Era”.↩︎

  19. 我部简介” [Department profile], International Liaison Department.↩︎

  20. Wang Jiarui, “王家瑞:努力开创党的对外工作新局面” [Make an effort to create a new situation for the party’s foreign affairs work], CCP News, 3 June 2014.↩︎

  21. 爱沙尼亚社会民主党” [Social Democratic Party of Estonia], International Liaison Department.↩︎

  22. Argo Ideon, “Eesti sotside delegatsioon kohtub Hiina kompartei juhtidega” [Estonian SDE delegation meets with China’s Communist Party leaders], Postimees, 27 November 2009.↩︎

  23. 中国共产党对外交往活动(2008年)” [The events of 2008 in the foreign exchanges of the Communist Party of China].↩︎

  24. 中联部副部长陈凤翔访问爱沙尼亚” [ILD Vice Minister Chen Fengxiang visited Estonia], PRC Foreign Ministry, 8 April 2009.↩︎

  25. 王刚会见爱沙尼亚客人” [Wang Gang met Estonian guests], People’s Daily, 1 December 2009.↩︎

  26. Ideon, op. cit..↩︎

  27. 我部简介” [Department profile], International Liaison Department.↩︎

  28. Lulu & Hála, A new Comintern for the New Era; “中国共产党与世界政党高层对话会 北京倡议(全文)” [High level dialogue between the CCP and political parties of the world. The Peking Initiative (full text)], Xinhua, 3 December 2017.↩︎

  29. 出席中欧政党高层论坛的政党及政党组织” [The political parties and organisations participating in the Chinese–European high level forum for political parties], CCP News.↩︎

  30. European United Left – Nordic Green Left.↩︎

  31. 中欧政党高层论坛新闻发布会” [Press conference of the China–Europe High Level Political Parties Forum], State Council Information Office, 26 May 2010.↩︎

  32. 我部简介” [Department profile], International Liaison Department.↩︎

  33. Wang Jiarui, “王家瑞:努力开创党的对外工作新局面” [Make an effort to create a new situation for the party’s foreign affairs work], CCP News, 3 June 2014.↩︎

  34. Indrek Veiserik, “Sorry, USA! Aga Hiinast sai just maailma suurim majandus!” [Sorry US! China just became the world’s largest economy!], Kesknädal, 22 October 2014; “陈凤翔会见波罗的海三国政党领导人” [Chen Fengxiang met party leaders from the three Baltic countries], International Liaison Department, 23 April 2013.↩︎

  35. 爱沙尼亚社会民主党国际书记兰德尔·兰茨” [Estonian SDE Secretary General Randel Länts], International Liaison Department, 12 May 2016; “Randel Länts”, Miltton; Roonemaa et al., “Trojan panda”, Postimees, 4 September 2019.↩︎

  36. China and Belgium”, PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC.↩︎

  37. Mailis Reps”, International Liaison Department, 24 October 2015.↩︎

  38. 我部简介” [Department profile], International Liaison Department.↩︎

  39. 周力会见爱沙尼亚议会外委会代表团” [Zhou Li met with a delegation of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament], International Liaison Department, 7 May 2014.↩︎

  40. Wang Jiarui, “王家瑞:努力开创党的对外工作新局面”.↩︎

  41. 周力会见爱沙尼亚外长、改革党副主席彭图斯·罗西曼努斯” [Zhou Li met with Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, Estonian Foreign Minister and Deputy Chairman of the Reform Party], International Liaison Department, 22 January 2015.↩︎