China’s foreign policy of recent years has been one long protracted game. In order to promote its interests abroad and extend its political influence on a global scale, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been engaging in strategic diplomatic relations with various foreign political parties, private companies, and local communities. The ultimate goal behind this strategy is to “make the foreign serve China,” in the phrase Mao Zedong once used.
The main driving force behind this strategy is the United Front Work Department, the official CCP outreach agency that reports directly to the Central Committee and works to promote the Party’s interests both inside and outside of China. The United Front strategy is based on the concept of “soft power”—the idea that power comes not only from the barrel of a gun, but also from cultural prestige, economic pull, and subtle political influence. The United Front Work Department’s nine bureaus each work to spread the Party’s message to a different social group: non-communists within China, ethnic Chinese outside of China, religious groups inside and outside China, and the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other ethnic minorities in the west of the People’s Republic. Since Xi Jinping’s ascension in 2012, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been increasingly proactive in these fields. The strategy is paying off: as of July 2017, China was ranked 25th globally on the global soft power rankings, a three-place jump from the previous year.
In 2014, Xi Jinping called the United Front strategy one of the “magic weapons” the CCP holds in its arsenal. A September 2017 report by the Wilson Center gives a closer look at what these “magic weapons” consist of. One main tactic is to influence public opinion in foreign countries through Chinese nationals involved in politics, business, or community affairs there. Contacts in foreign companies and political parties can also provide access to foreign intelligence or even affect foreign nations’ government policy.
China’s massive economic development projects abroad, most importantly the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, are another tool of influence. By increasing its massive infrastructure projects through strategic alliances with foreign companies and governments and public-private partnerships, China aims to gain freer access to natural resources and improve “infrastructure diplomacy” with its trading partners.
On the propaganda front, there’s a concerted effort to radically expand China’s multi-platform communications strategy on a global scale. Xi Jinping has declared that CCP’s message should be “the loudest of our times.” The PRC is now striving to extend its reach by partnering with foreign media outlets. In 2016, China’s largest broadcaster, CCTV, launched a global multi-media network, CGTN, which has a potential reach of 85 million viewers in over a hundred different countries. That could make its influence more widely felt than that of RT (Russia Today), which boasts an active global viewership of seven million. Beyond that, China also seeks to affect public opinion by building strategic partnerships with foreign academic institutions. Foreign universities and academic publishers routinely receive strings-attached funding from Chinese-owned Confucius Institutes.
In recent years, New Zealand and Australia have experienced the full spectrum of China’s “magic weapons,” including state-funded groups and civil society actors. The Peaceful Reunification of China Association of New Zealand (PRCANZ) is an excellent example of an active United Front organization. Founded by the Chinese embassy in New Zealand, its main mission is to promote China’s reunification with Taiwan. It organizes groups of activists to intimidate and shout down anti-PRC demonstrators. More importantly, it has managed to drastically shift the political discourse in China’s favor through the organization conferences and gatherings of Chinese community groups, United Front groups, and New Zealand political parties. Jami-Lee Ross, an MP for New Zealand’s main center-right party, the National Party, appeared at one such meeting to pledge his party’s support for the One China policy.
Groups like PRCANZ also work to cultivate allies and place them in positions of power. Those include politicians, investors, or heads of foreign companies. Beijing uses them as liaisons, pushing CCP-approved propaganda. It also funds political opposition groups. This strategy helps the CCP achieve two ends: become more entrenched in the political sphere of foreign nations, and create a type of political patronage system. That is, United Front groups fund the political campaigns of pro-PRC candidates, who then become dependent upon Beijing’s support. In New Zealand, the ruling National Party has been the focus of this kind of influence. Jian Yang, one of its China-born MPs, recently came under investigation when it was revealed that he spent more than a decade working in elite military colleges within China.
The same sorts of things have also occurred in Australia. Duncan Lewis, Australia’s domestic spy chief, claims that foreign interference from the Chinese government is occurring at “an unprecedented scale.” The United Front Work Department has established connections with major political donors in Australia and has also founded civil society organizations like the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (like PRCANZ, a pressure group promoting Beijing’s control over Taiwan). Consider too the case of Helen Liu, a highly successful Chinese businesswoman with connections to Australia’s Labour Party who was also vice-chairwoman of a United Front Work-affiliated organization and had close ties to figures in Chinese military intelligence.
Beijing’s growing influence over the domestic affairs of sovereign nations from Central Europe to the South Pacific cannot be ignored. The United Front Work Department reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and spreads the Party’s message to media, education, civil society, and political groups worldwide. While its influence has been most obvious in China’s neighborhood, it is surely being felt closer to home as well.
Photo: South African Government