Decoding united front work from Australia to Europe

Interview with Alex Joske on his new report on the united front system and CCP influence abroad.

A new report by Alex Joske of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) presents the first systematic overview of the CCP’s united front system, with new evidence of the role of united front organisations in influence abroad targeting mainstream politics, corporations and think tanks. In this interview, Joske discusses united front work, its overlap with other forms of influence and possible responses available to policy-makers in Europe and elsewhere.

Joske and Danielle Cave of ASPI, Maree Ma of the Vision Times and Martin Hála and Didi Kirsten Tatlow of Sinopsis will discuss united front work from Australia to Europe at an online seminar on Thursday, 18th June at 9 AM CEST (free registration).

Some of your recent work has focused on the CCP’s united front system: the leading small group at its apex, the Central Committee department that coordinates it, and now its overall structure, agencies, activities and targets in a more detailed study. The attention was overdue: few scholars abroad (p. 110) have counted it among the main systems, even though, as a UFWD WeChat account had to remind us, the system’s leading body is hardly a Xiist novelty (“很多人以为,统战工作领导小组是个新生事物,其实,you’re wrong”).

The united front system is, however, one of several systems involved in the CCP’s influence abroad; entities under the military, security or foreign affairs systems employ similar tactics, with overlapping targets. Indeed, élite capture successes in some locales are arguably the result of united front work by other means; these tactics are far from monopolised by this one system. Why should the united front system (rather than specific organs, or united front tactics more broadly) be the topic of a study that explicitly addresses a policy-making audience?

The united front system is the bureaucratic grouping of agencies and leadership bodies overseeing united front work. People around the world have been identifying links between united front agencies and people involved in political influence or technology transfer work. However, there hasn’t been as much work trying to piece together the structure that brings those activities together. By starting in Beijing with the leaders of the united front system and then working out to its agencies, platforms, fronts and targets, you get a more complete sense of its structured nature as well the broad scope of its objectives. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this latest report.

For policymakers who want to recognise and respond to CCP influence, understanding the united front system, as opposed to just the United Front Work Department (UFWD) or united front work when it manifests as political interference, is essential. Understanding how the system is structured and how it operates should allow governments to identify united front networks without necessarily waiting for them to get caught engaging in illegal activity or interference. Focusing on specific parts of the system can leave out many actors responsible for united front work, risk neglecting the full range of united front work (for example, technology transfer), and also overlooks how the system is managed at a higher level than the UFWD. It’s overseen by a Politburo Standing Committee member and has a dedicated leading small group that brings together dozens of ministries. United front work that becomes political interference or espionage is often supported by a wide range of overt and covert activities, so you can’t address political interference without understanding the overt activities that enable it.

Traditional targets of united front policy such as religion and ethnic minorities are familiar from the CCP’s history, and indeed that of other Leninist régimes. Groot and others have discussed the centrality of business to CCP united front work, especially to the success of the “new economic policy” that has embedded capitalism into Leninism since Deng. You present new evidence (p. 18) of cooption activity explicitly targeting international business, with a case study on the extent of united front work at the China node of Deloitte, one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms. Work by these firms does not only affect goings-on in China: most obviously, they audit companies present in foreign markets.

What are the goals of such intensive united front engagement with firms like Deloitte? Can the success of united front work at multinationals translate into a form of CCP influence abroad?

Businesses are another example of why it’s important to study the united front system from the top-down, or outwards from the center. Previously my research on united front work had been focused on looking at how it was used to influence politics via ethnic Chinese community groups. When I started looking at the system’s objectives and targets more generally, one of the things it led me to was multinational firms. They officially fall under the category of united front work on ‘new social strata individuals’, which is essentially a category for urban professionals such as NGO workers, multinational company employees and even social media influencers. This is a new focus of united front work, and a dedicated UFWD bureau for it was only established in 2016.

The basic objective of united front work is to strengthen the party’s ability to further its objectives by mobilising groups outside the party. This usually focuses on ‘representative individuals’ of those groups. The same applies to united front work on multinational companies. This can translate into a number of things, such as using multinationals to promote the Belt and Road Initiative or condemn protestors in Hong Kong.

Using the Deloitte example, some of Deloitte China’s most senior executives have been befriended by united front agencies and given positions in united front bodies such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. These bodies ostensibly seek to solicit advice from and consult with non-party groups, but in practice they seem to serve as mechanisms for rewarding and cultivating leaders of non-party groups.

The relatively recent focus on applying these techniques to multinational firms is quite concerning because it could be a convenient platform for spreading united front networks across the world within multinational firms.

United front work abroad makes effective use of legal, overt activities to advance the CCP’s interests in target countries, often directly reaching politicians and other élite figures. However, your paper also discusses the overlap of united front work with military, intelligence and organised crime activity. Synergies between united front work and these other aspects of foreign engagement are illustrated by the use of united front roles for intelligence cover and the united front nature of exchange platforms linked to intelligence agencies. Your paper (p. 14) mentions the China International Cultural Exchange Center (CICEC, 中国国际文化交流中心 ), an MSS front, as an example of the latter. CEFC, a key actor in élite capture in the Czech Republic, was linked to a PLA front, the China Association for International Friendly Contacts (CAIFC, 中国国际友好联络会).

How significant are these overlaps between intelligence, united front work and other forms of engagement? Should knowledge of them inform the target countries’ policy responses to united front work?

One of the main points of fascination with the United Front has been its relationship with espionage and China’s intelligence agencies. In 1939, Zhou Enlai talked about using the United Front as a vehicle for intelligence work, and it was used with great success during the Chinese Civil War.

However, since the Chinese Civil War ended, the United Front and united front work have evolved. I think united front work is much more institutionalised and codified than it was before, which leads to some confusion about what is and isn’t united front work or the United Front.

Today, it looks like China’s intelligence agencies — the Ministry of State Security, the PLA’s Intelligence Bureau (formerly the Second Department of the General Staff Department) and the PLA Political Work Department Liaison Bureau (formerly the Political Department of the General Political Department) — draw on the tradition and methods of united front work and also see united front bodies as useful platforms for their activities.

For example, the China Association for International Friendly Contacts looks very much like a united front group in the way that it’s used to schmooze with influential people from around the world. It’s held exchanges with retired US 4-star generals, an Australian mining magnate, a former Australian ambassador to Beijing and even a Japanese new-age religion called Agon-Shū 阿含宗. Except it’s run by the PLA Political Work Department Liaison Bureau, which has been at the forefront of the party’s foreign influence operations (see Stokes and Hsiao). It doesn’t seem to be part of the united front system in an institutional sense, but arguably comes out of the same tradition.

There’s also growing evidence that united front groups (i.e. organisations that seem to be guided by the united front system) are favoured by intelligence agencies as vehicles for intelligence gathering and covert influence work. For example, Wang Liqiang, who defected to Australia last year claiming to have worked for a PLA intelligence officer, alleged that Huang Xiangmo had met with that intelligence officer. Huang Xiangmo had been president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which has close ties to the UFWD’s China Council for Peaceful National Reunification. He and his associates donated over $3 million dollars to political parties, some of which is now being scrutinised by an anti-corruption agency, before he had his Australian residency cancelled in late 2018 for reportedly being ‘amenable to conduct acts of foreign interference’. From an analytical perspective, this is interesting because it could mean that some of the most egregious cases of united front figures engaging in political influence work may actually trace back to intelligence agencies and not the united front system.

While major PRC media outlets fall under the aegis of the CCP propaganda system, your paper (pp. 12 f.) also discusses the united front system’s propaganda work, focused on Chinese-language media abroad. Have you identified any links between the united front system and Europe-based media?

Media influence and propaganda is another poorly understood side of the united front system’s work. Reuters and Jichang Lulu have written about overseas media overtly owned by the Propaganda Department’s China Radio International, but the united front system’s activities in this area are arguably more concerning.

China News Service, a media company subordinate to the United Front Work Department, has bureaus around the world and serves as the state-owned media outlet for ‘overseas Chinese’. It also seems to play an important role in liaising with and influencing overseas Chinese-language media. For example, Qiaobao (literally ‘Newspaper of overseas Chinese’) in the United States has been accused of being covertly run by China News Service or the UFWD’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

In my report I identified 26 WeChat accounts belonging to 9 overseas media companies, but the accounts were registered to a subsidiary of China News Service. Some of those accounts were run by Qiaobao and Pacific Media in Australia, which has also been accused of being run by China News Service. Many were run by companies closely linked to China News Service; however, it hasn’t yet been proven that they are covertly run by China News Service. Ten of the accounts are run by Nouvelles d’Europe (欧洲时报), a Chinese media company headquartered in France, but with operations across much of Europe. One of its WeChat accounts focuses on Central and Eastern European audiences. The company also works with China News Service to liaise with other Chinese-language media in Europe.

[On Nouvelles d’Europe and China News Service’s regional network, see Tatlow, pp. 11 f.]

Although it has been best studied in New Zealand and Australia, the united front system’s activity in Europe is just as extensive. While still underresearched, it has been documented in, e.g., the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, Sweden and the European Parliament.

How should European states and the EU respond to united front work?

Transparency, capacity building, law enforcement and deterrence should be pillars of European responses to united front work and CCP influence in general. More than anything, media investigations that shone a light on CCP influence operations in Australia have done the most damage to those activities here. Governments should also channel resources into internal efforts to study and assess the extent of CCP influence.

Together with transparency, creating and implementing laws that ban foreign political interference is necessary. Australia has also set up a ‘foreign influence transparency scheme’ where entities engaging in influence on behalf of foreign governments or political organisations are supposed to register. The scheme draws inspiration from the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act, but there are still some issues with its implementation and, unsurprisingly, united front groups haven’t registered themselves.

However, the scale and nature of CCP influence means it will often be difficult to prove a covert or illegal element behind influence work, and most of the preparatory work for illegal activity is still legal. That means civil society and Chinese-language media are going to be fundamental to tackling the problem and working in those grey spaces.

No matter how careful governments and mainstream media are to not marginalise or attack ethnic Chinese communities in their statements about CCP influence, that will all be a waste of time if Chinese-language media is still under CCP influence. Reasonable and narrowly targeted responses by governments will be disparaged as racist and ‘anti-Chinese’ by Chinese state media, co-opted local media and united front groups.

By working with Chinese communities and Chinese media to protect against interference and encourage genuine political representation, resilience against interference can be built into communities. This would involve massively expanding and improving outreach to Chinese communities by governments and political parties so that the government can better understand the situation within communities, and so that community members know how to contact the government to offer thoughts or report foreign interference. Independent community groups and media should also receive financial support from the government to balance the benefits the party gives pro-CCP groups.

Interview by Jichang Lulu.

Further reading:

Alex Joske, “The party speaks for you: Foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s united front system”, ASPI Policy brief 32 (2020).

—, “The Central United Front Work Leading Small Group: Institutionalising united front work”, Sinopsis, 23 July 2019.

The PLA and CCP influence abroad: Business, intelligence, crime and interference enmeshed”, Sinopsis, 6 Dec 2019.