Unified message, rhizomatic delivery: A preliminary analysis of PRC/CCP influence and the united front in Switzerland

Documenting Overseas Chinese united front networks and contacts between Swiss social, economic and political circles and the Chinese party-state’s co-optation apparatus.

Summary and key findings

This study sets out to trace some of the personal and institutional networks used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence society and economic and political circles in Switzerland. These efforts address issues sensitive from a CCP point of view (Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang etc.), but also aim to shape the image of China in Switzerland overall. The focus is on Swiss-based actors, who appear to be co-opted, and, in a classic pattern, might or might not be aware of their co-optation. The study highlights the grey zones that these tactics of influence and sometimes interference are conducted in and the rhizomatic manner by which a unified message from various actors in Beijing gets projected into a target society like Switzerland.

We distinguish two different target groups, with China’s embassy and the consulate apparently functioning as important nodes of coordination and communication in the effort to silence critical voices and normalize China as a legitimate source of normativity in the global arena despite continuing and even increasing ideological divides. The first is united front organizations and related bodies affiliated with the propaganda system or the external affairs system. These are active in Switzerland targeting and catering to overseas Chinese, regardless of nationality. This part reveals a vivid and active scene in Switzerland. The study highlights two associations that assemble considerable parts of the network. While the Swiss Association of Merchants and Entrepreneurs of Chinese Origin (sec. 1.1) brings together influential individuals with positions in united front organizations, the Federation of Overseas Chinese Associations in Switzerland (sec. 1.2) assembles directly associations and represents an effort to unite the united front in Switzerland. Science, technology and professional associations appear particularly important in the Swiss context and we discuss them at some length, with special attention given to the Chinese Association of Science and Technology Switzerland (sec. 1.3). Linked to the latter are the Chinese student and scholars associations at Swiss universities, which are directly part of the united front system, while the more recent establishment of alumni associations of various Chinese universities in Switzerland seems to be guided from their home institutions (sec. 1.4). The hometown associations cater mainly to the respective Overseas Chinese communities. Although there are personal overlaps with united front organizations, they seem, to varying degree but overall, less actively oriented towards shaping the broader discourse in Swiss society than is the case in other European countries. The (Swiss-led) European Jiangxi Hometown Association, however, stands out, since it leads to the platform EurAsia Info. This platform has ties to the propaganda system and cooperates with the China News Service, which is directly under the United Front Work Department (sec. 1.5). Brief discussions of two individuals who seem to occupy influential positions, but appear less embroiled with the associations assembled in the Federation of Overseas Chinese Associations in Switzerland, follow (sec. 1.6.). The first part ends with selected examples of more local associations, which it is important to mention in order to complement the picture and thereby revealing the spectrum of organizations active in Switzerland (sec. 1.7).

Swiss-based actors who are less rooted in the Overseas Chinese communities, but speak to society, economy and politics more broadly and in many ways more effectively constitute the second target group. The question is to what extent the Chinese party-state co-opts these actors. In this part, the ambition is not to be as comprehensive as possible, but to highlight demonstrable points of contact between some typical actors, on the one side, and entities related to the CCP, on the other side. Here, many different systems of the Chinese party-state involved in influence operations are brought into the picture, the united front being merely one of them and often not the most important one. The positive messaging about China that emerges from these constellations is evident. The selected cases are typical for the range of involved or targeted actors, which includes high-level politicians, national associations, influential civil society actors as well as more local, more bottom-up and often personal initiatives, also revealing different degrees of exposure to PRC/CCP influence. The Swiss-Chinese Association typifies the national friendship organization that one would find in many other countries. It is notable for its connection to what it considers its counterpart in the PRC, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and its access to high-level Chinese politicians. At the same time, it is well connected into Swiss politics, particularly through the Parliamentary Group Switzerland-China, while the activities of some of its board members’ private businesses overlap considerably with those of the association (sec. 2.1). Also Intertwined with the Parliamentary Group is the Swiss Trade Association. Across many years, its leadership has engaged with the PRC and struck connections with the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a united front body (sec. 2.2). Many cantons interact with the PRC and it does therefore not astonish that there are points of contact. The study briefly looks at the Cantons of Schaffhausen and Geneva, focusing on the realms of economic promotion and engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative, respectively (sec. 2.3). Not all points of contact are as official and national as these examples might suggest. We therefore take up one example of a more civil-society dimension that, however, still leads us to interactions with the united front and considerable access to the Swiss embassy in the PRC (sec. 2.4). Finally, the study addresses the fact that several of the largest Swiss-based multinational companies feature individual board members who also are members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The connection promises to provide access to the Chinese market, but research has emphasized how intricately this institution is a part of the united front system, which the Swiss case to some extent confirms given the activities that some of these board members unfold, reaching far into Swiss society and politics (sec. 2.5).

The target groups discussed in the two parts of this study appear to operate largely in parallel worlds, perhaps meeting from time to time at events hosted by the embassy or the consulate, but there are few direct links between them and it is unclear to what extent the two groups are even aware of each other. Still, some such links could be established in this study and, in that case, they would usually come to represent an important node in the rhizome. This is the first-ever study to examine PRC/CCP influence and united front activities in Switzerland. It contributes to the emerging specialist research literature on PRC/CCP influence through a variety of actors as well as on the united front and its global presence in select countries. It might be helpful to provide a summary of the key findings in advance:

  1. There is a hitherto little understood lively scene of united front organizations in Switzerland, largely targeting and catering to the Overseas Chinese community, delivering a unified message about the motherland and uniting the diaspora ideologically. The influence thus exerted seems focused and therefore of limited immediate significance for the overall assessment of the Swiss case.

  2. Although the phenomenon of rivaling factions within Overseas Chinese communities is known, it is rarer to get a glimpse at publicly documented internal conflict among united front actors such as the subsection on the Federation of Overseas Chinese Associations in Switzerland shows. The Swiss case is also notable for the apparent absence of the Swiss Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China in this attempt to unite the united front in a target society.

  3. A sector in Switzerland of obviously considerable significance to the united front is science and technology, which raises questions of knowledge and technology transfer and talent recruitment efforts. More research should investigate this sector in Switzerland, but also its transnational dimension at the level of the European Union.

  4. Several Swiss-based actors such as the Swiss Chinese Association or the Swiss Trade Association demonstrably operate under the assumption of a false equivalence, mistaking CCP-controlled bodies for civil-society associations and for their “counterpart.” This finding points to the need for increased awareness building at all levels of Swiss society, economy and politics, and establishing a more solid knowledge base on the structure and functioning of the Chinese party-state.

  5. While many of the influence efforts appear to be of minor significance when looked upon in each individual case, the amount of efforts, the systematic though rhizomatic nature, and the unified message hint at larger patterns that are likely to entail serious consequences only cumulatively and over a longer period of time.

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