Home / Articles / A Weapon Without War: China’s United Front Strategy
“United Front Work is an important magic weapon for the victory of the party’s cause.” – Xi Jinping, October 2017
Less headline-grabbing than China’s military advances and expanding economic reach is China’s united front activities, which have become an increasing cause for concern among countries in Asia, particularly U.S. allies. Not as benign as the name might sound, united front work aims to influence the policies of foreign states toward Chinese ends, through means that may be legal, illegal, or exploit gray areas. The term has a long history, going back to Vladimir Lenin’s desire to unite all enemies of colonialism and imperialism as an intermediate stage toward the ultimate triumph of communism, after which the colonialists and imperialists could be discarded. In his successor Joseph Stalin’s colorful phrase, they would have been squeezed out like lemons and dropped into the dustbin of history.
The early history of united front work in China was not a happy one: ordered by the Communist International to ally with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on two separate occasions, the infant Chinese Communist Party (CCP) found that the KMT, too, was capable of squeezing and discarding; many CCP members, including Mao Zedong’s wife, were executed in what became known as the White Terror.
After its victorious conquest in 1949, the party adapted the united front concept to suit the new circumstances: China, led by the party, would unite people from all social classes and walks of life. The concept was given concrete institutional form with the creation of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Externally, the party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) coordinated visits by sympathetic non-communist leaders, professional groups such as doctors and professors that they wanted to establish rapport with, and cultural exchange programs. The UFWD also established contacts with Chinese diaspora communities. After Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the outside world in 1978, more Chinese left the PRC, usually to study or conduct business. Many stayed, becoming citizens of those countries while retaining varying degrees of ties with their native land.
The party’s popularity suffered a sharp downturn after its brutal suppression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China in 1989, with international opinion critical of its actions as well. The leadership’s feeling of isolation deepened when, a few months later, the Soviet empire began to crumble, leaving the concept of communism itself discredited at the same time. The leadership found nationalism a useful substitute to bolster its legitimacy at home and abroad. As part of this outreach, it became more interested in cultivating overseas Chinese communities and mobilizing them in support of PRC goals. With more and more young Chinese choosing to study abroad, Chinese student associations proliferated and could be mobilized to support the party’s policies. Non-Chinese, particularly those who enjoyed positions of respect in their communities and varying amounts of wealth, were sought out as well, earning the honorary title of “Friends of China.” Apart from minor incidents, like protesting the arrival of visitors from Taiwan, the organizations had little salience.
This changed with Xi Jinping’s ascension to the leadership of party and government in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The time had come for China—now strong and confident—to move beyond Deng Xiaoping’s advice to hide its assets and bide its time. Delegates to the Party Central Committee’s 18th National Congress were lectured on the importance of united front work, and the bureaucracy hastened to comply. Soon, there were signs of alarm in several Western countries at the forms this was taking.
Australia: Infiltrating Society at All Levels
A joint investigation by journalists from Australia’s Four Corners and Fairfax Media exposed what it called a campaign by the Chinese government and its proxies to infiltrate the country’s political process, its targets including universities, local student and community groups, the Chinese language media, and some of the nation’s leading politicians. And Duncan Lewis, head of the Australian Security Investigation Organization (ASIO) warned, with clear if unspoken reference to China, that “espionage and foreign interference are occurring here on an unprecedented scale, with the potential to cause serious harm to this nation’s sovereignty, its security, and . . . the integrity of our political system.”
In 2015, a team of counterespionage officers raided the Canberra home of a Chinese woman married to a former high-ranking Australian intelligence official, seizing classified Australian intelligence documents. The woman, identified as Sheri Yan, was described as a socialite with connections to senior levels of government in both Australia and China. Her husband, Roger Uren, had until 2001 been Assistant Secretary at Australia’s Office of Net Assessments, the agency that provides secret intelligence briefings to the prime minister. Ms. Yan was also said to have been the intermediary in the transfer of $200,000 into the bank account of a United Nations official whom another wealthy Chinese-Australian donor said he wanted to become his “sincere friend in [China’s] Guangdong Province.” This was clearly illegal: Ms. Yan was charged, pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and served a jail term.
In the weeks before the raid, ASIO analysts had been tracking the links between political donors in Australia and the CCP, with Lewis warning the heads of major political parties that, although no laws had been broken, the donations might come with conditions attached. According to Australian academic Clive Hamilton, Allen & Unwin, a publication company in Australia, delayed publication of his book, Silent Invasion, detailing these and other activities to influence politics, as a result of pressure from China. In the same time frame, Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had allowed a company owned by Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese billionaire with close connections to the highest levels of the CCP, to pay a legal bill for his office. Later, in a clandestine meeting with Huang, Dastyari warned Huang that his phone was likely being tapped in connection with an investigation into his activities. Additionally, at a Chinese media conference, he had endorsed China’s stance on the South China Sea, contradicting his party’s policy. These revelations prompted the introduction of new laws barring contributions to Australian political parties and individuals.
A former senior intelligence analyst called for an urgent review of an arrangement whereby a Confucius Institute was embedded inside the New South Wales Department of Education, citing the words of a Chinese official that the Confucius Institutes are an important part of China’s overseas propaganda establishment. Others objected to emplacement of an Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) inside the University of Technology Sydney: ACRI was founded by donations from the aforementioned Huang Xiangmo. Clive Hamilton testified at an Australian parliamentary hearing on national security legislation that UWFD efforts aimed as well at intimidating and coercing the Chinese Australian community, not just persuade them to advance the PRC’s interests. The Chinese foreign ministry’s response was that its activities do not constitute interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and that these allegations are baseless creations of the biased Australian media, and prompted by racism.
New Zealand: Accessing Sensitive Government Information
In New Zealand, the issue of Chinese interference in politics came to a head with Member of Parliament Yang Jian. Yang, born and educated in the PRC, had omitted to mention on his application for New Zealand citizenship that he worked in China’s military intelligence sector for fifteen years. The People’s Liberation Army would not have allowed anyone with his background to go overseas to further their studies unless they had official permission; even so, Yang would have had to wait at least two years and to obtain permission from his former employer to leave China. This apparently did not happen. Having entered parliament, Yang accompanied two successive prime ministers in meetings with visiting senior Chinese leaders, which gave him privileged access to New Zealand’s China policy briefing notes and positions. Normally, someone with a foreign military intelligence background would not have been given the security clearances necessary for this access, but elected members of parliament need not apply for such clearances.
Taiwan: New Parties and Education Opportunities
According to the Taipei Times, in 2005, Wang Huning, then-director of the CCP’s Central Party Research Office and now a Politburo member, targeted more than 20 political figures from Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who had been marginalized by their respective parties and invited them to serve as organizing central committee members of a new, pro-Beijing, party. A book by exiled Chinese dissident Yuan Hongbing, The Taiwan Crisis, provided corroboration, stating that in June 2008 the Politburo had passed a political strategy for settling the Taiwan issue that listed organizing a political party in Taiwan as its most important united front tactic. In late 2017, investigators searched the residences of four prominent members of the New Party. The party, which espouses policies that echo those of the CCP, is legitimate under Taiwan law. The content of the materials seized in the raid has not been disclosed, but it has been alleged that the New Party had founded a paramilitary New China Youth Association with the goal of “wartime control.”
Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui has stated that China’s united front work in Taiwan includes sponsoring organized criminal activities to stir up inter-ethnic conflict and destabilize society. A spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office compared the raid to Chiang Kai-shek’s White Terror and condemned the authorities for “wantonly suppressing and persecuting the forces and people who advocate peaceful unification of the two sides of the Strait.”
The UFWD also sponsors “exchange” tours to China by Taiwanese students, their teachers, and principals. It has established a Student Baseball League in Shenzhen—the game being very popular in Taiwan—in which players compete against the backdrop of a large banner reading “both sides in the Taiwan Strait are one family.” At the tertiary level, students from Taiwan are offered scholarships at China’s most prestigious universities. Already, according to China’s official press agency, two Taiwanese studying at China’s highest rated institution, Beijing University, have applied to join the CCP, one of them vowing his fervent desire “to become a participant in the mainland’s joint rejuvenation.” The large number of PhDs from Taiwan universities who have not been able to find employment there have been offered jobs in China. In January, Taiwanese-born Hsieh Kuo-chun was selected to the top advisory board of the CPPCC, the non-party institutional face of the united front.
The target of China’s UFWD work appears to be the “independence by nature” generation, meaning those who came of age after the lifting of Taiwan’s emergency decrees, sometime referred to as martial law. They have no memories of life in China, have grown up under a democratic system, and see no need to declare an independence the country already enjoys.
Since the bulk of Taiwan’s trade is with China, special attention has been devoted to business people. Those who endorse policies favorable to China receive appointments to PRC organizations and favorable treatment; those who do not find opportunities cut off.
The Role of Chinese Students’ Associations
A major conduit for transmitting the Beijing government’s policies has been Chinese students and scholars associations (CSSAs) at universities. An Australian professor was forced to apologize to students for a map that showed Arunachal Pradesh, contested between China and India but under Indian administration; another for referring to Taiwan as a country. In the United States, the CSSA vigorously protested the University of California at San Diego’s invitation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to give the 2017 commencement address, with an interviewer for the Voice of America—a U.S. government-funded organization—asking this author if she did not think it reasonable that, because Chinese students “paid so much money to the United States [sic]” that their wishes be respected.
There are links between consulates, Confucius Institutes, and student associations. The CSSA at the University of Miami encouraged students to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago in 2017—while also counter-protesting pro-Tibet and pro-Taiwan demonstrators—offering transportation, banners, and signs subsidized by a local China-funded Confucius Institute.
In early January, responding to a letter from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the University of Texas at Austin decided it would not accept funding from the China-U.S Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) for its newly established China Public Policy Center. Senator Cruz’s letter referenced conversations with American intelligence officials, saying that the foundation is affiliated with China’s united front system. He pointed out that CUSEF is headed by Beijing’s hand-picked first governor of Hong Kong and now a vice-chairman of the CPPCC and that its board members are well-known supporters of Beijing. The UT Austin center was founded with a mandate to make “fresh and enduring contributions to the study of China-related policy topics while advancing U.S.-China relations,” though its first event was described as infused with propaganda. The university president’s has vowed to seek funding for the center elsewhere.
Post-Employment Opportunities for Officials Sympathetic to China
Another development of concern has been former high-ranking officials or parliamentarians taking jobs with Chinese companies after leaving office. Former Foreign Minister of Australia Bob Carr became chairman of the Australia China Research Institute, whose director and major donor is the aforementioned politically suspect billionaire Huang Xiangmo; Mr. Carr has been a reliable defender of Beijing. As a case in point, Carr responded to charges of PRC intervention in Australian affairs, by saying “we are in danger of being ‘hung out to dry’ if we listen to the ‘China hawks’ and don’t more fully engage with China.” A member of the New South Wales parliament, Eric Roozendahl, went to work for Mr. Huang after leaving government. Former New Zealand Prime Minster John Key acts on behalf of U.S. media giant Comcast on its business projects in China; he refused to answer New Zealand media questions about the sale of his property to an undisclosed buyer at prices described as well above market rates for the area. Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley chairs the New Zealand branch of the China Construction Bank, one of the PRC’s largest, and former National Party leader Don Brash chairs the board of another large PRC financial giant, the Industrial Bank of China.
According to intelligence analysts cited by London’s Financial Times, relatively soft targets like Australia and New Zealand serve as testing grounds for China’s global espionage activities, which have in the past five years massively expanded. Though the majority of cases have concerned those two states, examples in other countries have surfaced as well. For example, David Cameron, former British prime minister, created a sensation when he took a job supervising a £750 million fund to improve ports, roads, and rail networks between China and its trading partners. However, said the Financial Times, British banks were reluctant to participate due to concerns about the lack of transparency in the finances of the projects and their heavy reliance on Chinese contractors.
At the end of January 2018, ASIO deputy director Peter Vickery told a parliamentary inquiry that “espionage and foreign interference activity against Australian interests is occurring on an unprecedented scale. . . . Foreign intelligence services [have] used Australian proxies to clandestinely seek classified and/or privileged Australian information at the expense of our national interest. . . . A foreign intelligence service . . . collect[ed] information about the diaspora community in Australia” and described these activities as the most extreme threat to Australian security.  Although Vickery did not name the country, Beijing’s People’s Daily immediately denounced the report as a hysterical reaction to China’s peaceful rise and development. Racism is a frequently invoked charge when China’s activities are revealed.
Another recent case in point occurred when Chinese Canadians demanded a further investigation into an incident of a Muslim girl wearing a hijab alleging that she had been attacked by an “Asian” man. After a police investigation ascertained that the girl was lying, the case was closed. Although the girl had said only that the man was Asian, the still dissatisfied demonstrators demanded an apology from the prime minister, claiming that “there is always discrimination visible or not, against Chinese people in Canada.” People’s Daily cited the view of a Canada specialist at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that because Chinese “are not good at participating in politics [this] makes them the target of attacks,” in effect arguing that Chinese need a greater voice in Canadian politics.
Greater Vigilance Needed to Combat China’s United Front Strategy
The sum total of these developments is worrisome. It is only right, fair, and reasonable that as the numbers of those from other countries who settle in Western democracies increase, they are entitled to representation in the institutions of government. Reciprocally, it is right, fair, and reasonable for these democracies to expect that the new citizens are loyal to their adopted country and that they are not acting as tools—willing or otherwise—to advance the interests of any other state, particularly when that state challenges the values of openness, diversity, and tolerance that democracies consider to be their core values. China is using the openness of democratic societies as a method to exploit them, while denying that it interferes in the domestic affairs of other countries and attempting to deflect criticism by charging that it is prompted by racism and fear of China’s rise. Until democracies see these charges for the distractions they are and pay close attention to the conditions attached to the apparent largesse of China’s development plans, we are complicit in our own demise. A founding signatory of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the PRC frequently cites its commitment to avoid interfering in the domestic politics of other states. It is up to those states to call China out when it fails to live up to its principles. Sadly, we do not.
 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017, National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill. 2017. Canberra, Australia, January 31, 2017, p. 55