An American Lens on China’s Interference and Influence-Building Abroad
又是中国间谍研究专家 Peter Mattis, Research Fellow, China Studies, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation April 30, 2018
Last June, Australian reporters for the Four Corners program released a bombshell documentary compiling much of the known (and some previously unknown) facts about Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing’s relationships in Australian politics and in the Communist Party of China (CPC). The report sparked a discussion that had been brewing in Australia for nearly a decade when journalists started asking questions about these newcomers’ donations to political parties.1 Before the end of the year, New Zealand journalists broke the news that MP Yang Jian probably was a former Chinese military intelligence officer and that he lied on immigration forms.2 These stories suggested that an important aspect of China’s rise remained unexplored.
The story of China’s rise to global prominence found its telling in economic dynamism, ambitious diplomatic initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rapid modernization. Glimpses of the CCP’s subtler efforts to build influence, however, rarely surfaced outside of Australia and lacked the context to give such stories lasting impact. Other cases — such as controversies over the CCP ties of local Chinese community leaders — simply were dismissed as inscrutable Chinatown politics. Growing concern about Xi Jinping’s China, however, helped turn eyes toward the party’s influence-building abroad and the discoveries about Huang, Chau, Yang, and Tung showed an international and far-reaching phenomenon.
Coming to grips with the CCP’s efforts to interfere and otherwise shape the world outside of normal channels begins with three simple truths about the party’s activities. First, the party’s influence operations are not the product of rogue cadres or overzealousness, but the party center. Senior leaders oversee propaganda and united front portfolios from both the Politburo and its Standing Committee. Numerous other officials in these systems hold positions on the Central Committee and lower-level party committees. Second, these are a routine part of the CCP’s day-to-day operations. Cadres do not require clear guidance. The united front and propaganda parts of the CCP are among the oldest, continuously running elements of the party. Democratic governments require special authorities, such as those granted in the United States by a Presidential Finding, for many of the operations conducted overseas by these party elements.
Third, the scale of these operations is difficult to overestimate. Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into special initiatives, such as expanding the global reach of official media platforms, and, even modest programs, like the Confucius Institutes, probably run in the tens of millions of dollars annually. One analyst estimated that Beijing may spend up to $10 billion every year.3 The three major organs — propaganda, united front, and people’s political consultative conferences — have central, provincial, and countless local units. What on its face sounds conspiratorial becomes more believable as the organizational and financial scope becomes clearer.
The first section sets the terms of this discussion. The second section outlines why the CCP’s concept of security compels it to push outward and interfere in other countries. The third section sketches the organizational structure of the party’s activities from the leadership to the primary and secondary party-state elements that contribute to Beijing’s efforts. The fourth section examines the main streams of effort of the party’s interference overseas and provides examples of how this work is conducted. The final section offers some final thoughts on the challenge posed by the CCP’s interference for democratic states and handling relationships with China.
Influence vs. Interference
All countries seek to expand and exercise their influence in both geographic and policy-related areas. Bigger countries just use power more forcefully with a longer arm. A reflexive opposition to all Chinese influence is not helpful. Influence is a loose, ill-defined word that describes almost any effect caused by the party’s actions or the pull of China’s culture and economy. Moreover, the resources of others, whether public or private, to address the problems are limited
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Peter Mattis，中国研究研究员，共产主义受害者纪念基金会 2018年4月30日
中国崛起为全球瞩目的故事在经济活力，雄心勃勃的外交倡议如“一带一路”和人民解放军（PLA）的快速现代化中得到了体现。然而，中共在建立影响力方面的微妙努力的一瞥很少在澳大利亚之外浮出水面，缺乏给这些故事带来持久影响的背景。其他案件 - 例如对中国当地社区领导人的中共关系的争议 - 仅被视为不可思议的唐人街政治。然而，对习近平中国越来越多的关注帮助转向了党在国外的影响力建设，而关于黄，洲，杨和桐的发现显示出一种国际性和深远的现象。
第三，这些业务的规模难以高估。北京已经投入数十亿美元用于特别举措，例如扩大官方媒体平台的全球覆盖范围，甚至包括孔子学院在内的适度项目，每年可能耗资数千万美元。一位分析师估计，北京每年可能花费高达100亿美元.3三个主要机构 - 宣传，统一战线和人民政治协商会议 - 有中央，省级和无数地方单位。随着组织和财务范围变得更加清晰，它的表面听起来变得更加可信。
第一部分设定了本次讨论的条款。第二部分概述了为什么中共的安全概念迫使其向外推进并干涉其他国家。第三部分概述了党的活动的组织结构，从领导到主要和次要的党 - 国家因素，有助于北京的努力。第四部分考察了党在海外干涉的主要努力，并举例说明了这项工作是如何进行的。最后一节对中共干涉民主国家和处理与中国关系所构成的挑战提出了一些最终想法。
超出字符数上限5000/5000比 5000 个字符的上限多出 163 个字符：翻译更多ers. The former have the cultural knowledge to introduce subversive ideas that resonate. The latter have the material power to undermine or topple the party-state.在描述CCP的令人反感的活动时，干扰是一个更好的词，至少有两个原因。首先，干涉“描述了跨越法律规定的界限，破坏了政治或社会活动的正常流动。”4它具有破坏性。其次，中共声称与干涉别国内政无关。北京和平共处五项原则之一是“相互不干涉内政”
用于讨论党的活动和干涉的语言往往隐藏在中国和国外的委婉语背后。对于以直截了当的方式描述的统一战线工作的每一个例子 - 例如关于外部宣传或在联合阵线工作部网站上动员海外华人的例子 - 还有许多其他缺乏这种清晰度的例子。例如，习近平向党的十九大提交的报告描述了统一战线工作的一个目标：“我们将鼓励非党员和属于新社会群体的知识分子在建设有中国特色社会主义方面发挥重要作用。 “6
西方关于中共政治干预的讨论也受到关于该党正在做什么以及它在民主国家内部意味着什么的不明确的语言的影响。澳大利亚总理马尔科姆·特恩布尔在任何官方言论或政策声明中都是最明确的，称澳大利亚“不会容忍以任何方式隐蔽，胁迫或腐败的外国影响力活动。”7特恩布尔的三个“C”可能澄清目的澳大利亚国家安全立法的背后，但没有解释引起民主政府关注的党的活动。该党对海外目标的胁迫很简单，就是外国政府对受其他主权国家法律保护的人实施暴力行为。在美国，最值得注意的例子涉及中共暴力和对法轮功学员的恐吓，以及最近逮捕了自由亚洲电台记者的家人，他们撰写了关于北京镇压新疆的报道.8隐蔽和腐败可以结合起来北京寻找代理人。在去年12月辞职之前，与中共挂钩的资金促成了现在耻辱的澳大利亚参议员Sam Dastyari在新南威尔士工党分支中的崛起。 Dastyari以牺牲工党政策为代价，在国内和中国媒体上传达了北京的谈话要点，以换取金融利益和政治筹款援助.9
中共把建设和维护政治权力放在首位。作为列宁主义政党，它围绕由专业政治人物组成的革命先锋队组织政治世界。这个政治核心试图通过社会组织来管理和塑造社会 - 例如工会，作家行会等 - 或党委员会监督党外直接控制以外的其他组织的管理。共产主义总是具有国际性;中共这样的政党应该停下来的地方没有明显的边界。对于必须解决的中共最重要的威胁是侨民社区，并可能威胁到大国 ......
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西方政府 - 其中许多都有针对华人社区的歧视性政策的历史 - 在保护中国公民免受党的掠夺性行为和侵犯民主自由之间存在狭隘的界限。然而，没有回应意味着海外华人被视为二等公民，其自由不受保护。过度热心的普遍反应可能会使每天受到最直接影响的华人社区疏远。他们最了解中共在美国和外国街道上所做的事情，如果这不一定导致合作或共谋，那么它就会投入大量的精力。华侨是我们的公民和永久居民，应受到法律的平等保护。
Interference is a better word to use when describing the CCP’s objectionable activities for at least two reasons. First, interference “describes crossing boundaries established by law and disrupting the normal flow of political or social activity.”4 It is disruptive. Second, the CCP claims to have nothing to do with interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. One of Beijing’s five principles of peaceful coexistence is “mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”5
Interference also leads to another important point: what the CCP is doing is not soft power. Soft power, at least as originally conceived by Joseph Nye, is largely passive, relating to the power to attract others. Much of what is described as the party’s investments in soft power relates to active policies intended to build Beijing’s power to influence how China is portrayed and understood in international media. The activities in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States now being described as interference are something different altogether. Arresting or otherwise pressuring family members of overseas Chinese or PRC citizens abroad is not passive or alluring. Covertly buying up overseas Chinese-language media or extending the censorship umbrella of WeChat abroad also are not soft power, but the extension of the party’s propaganda policies beyond China’s borders.
The language used to discuss the party’s activities and interference often hides behind euphemism both in China and abroad. For every example of united front work described in straightforward terms — such as those on external propaganda or mobilizing overseas Chinese on the United Front Work Department’s website — there are many others that lack such clarity. For example, Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th Party Congress described one objective of united front work: “We will encourage intellectuals who are not Party members and people belonging to new social groups to play the important roles they have in building socialism with Chinese characteristics.”6
Western discussions of the CCP’s political interference also suffer from unclear language about what the party is doing and what it means inside democratic countries. Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has been the most explicit in any official speech or policy statements, saying Australia “will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive, or corrupt.”7 Turnbull’s three “Cs” may clarify the purpose behind Australia’s national security legislation, but does not explain the party’s activities that have drawn the attention of democratic governments. The party’s coercion against overseas targets is quite simply a foreign government committing acts of violence against those protected by another sovereign state’s laws on its own soil. In the United States, the most notable examples involve CCP violence and intimidation against Falun Gong practitioners and, most recently, the arrests of family members of Radio Free Asia journalists who wrote about Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang.8 The covert and the corrupt can combine in Beijing’s search for proxies. CCP-linked money facilitated now-disgraced Australian senator Sam Dastyari’s rise in the Labor Party branch in New South Wales prior to his resignation last December. Dastyari delivered Beijing’s talking points in domestic and Chinese media at the expense of Labor Party policy in exchange for financial favors and assistance with political fundraising.9
For developed democracies with strong institutions, addressing the CCP’s political interference is less about countering Beijing’s influence and more about ensuring that laws and values are enforced and protected. The United States can prosecute an individual for being an agent of a foreign power and for participating in a conspiracy that prevents US citizens and residents from exercising their constitutional rights. Foreign campaign donations also are illegal. Chinese officials and party cadres who enter the United States to perform duties related to propaganda or united front work do so through fraudulently obtained visas. One easily could argue that the story is as much about unenforced laws and weakening democratic institutions as CCP interference.
The Chinese Communist Party Shapes the World
The CCP places its highest priority on building and maintaining its political power. As a Leninist party, it organizes the political world around a revolutionary vanguard formed of professional political operatives. This political core attempts to govern and shape society through social organizations — e.g. trade unions, writers’ guilds, etc. — or party committees to oversee the management of other organizations outside direct party control. Communism always has had an international dimension; there is no obvious border for where a party like the CCP should stop. The most important threats to CCP that must be addressed are the diaspora communities and potentially threatening great pow
The desire to control the political landscape and protect the party’s position found clear definition in China’s National Security Law (2015). The law describes security in broad terms that go well beyond physical threats to the territory of the PRC. Security comes from the inside out. Articles Two and Three of the law state:
“National security refers to the relative absence of international or domestic threats to the state’s power to govern, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development, and other major national interests, and the ability to ensure a continued state of security. National security efforts shall adhere to a comprehensive understanding of national security, make the security of the People their goal, political security their basis and economic security their foundation; make military, cultural and social security their safeguard…”
This definition has two notable features. First, security is defined by the absence of threats, not by the ability to manage them. This unlimited view pushes the CCP toward preempting threats and preventing their emergence. Second, security issues extend to the domain of ideas—what people think is potentially dangerous. The combination of these themes — preemption in the world of ideas — creates an imperative for the party to alter the world in which it operates—to shape how China and its current party-state are understood in the minds of foreign elites.
One way of making this more concrete is to look at CCP documents about security threats. In April 2013, “Document No. 9” — “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” —identified ideas that undermine the party-state’s security. Among them were the promotion of constitutional democracy, civil society, and Western concepts of journalism. In the circular’s final paragraph, it stated the party should “allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread.”10 Although it would be easy to dismiss this document as a one-off or unenforced, in 2015 Beijing abducted and held five Hong Kong booksellers, including foreign passport holders, who sold books ostensibly banned in China.11 Moreover, Beijing issued new regulations on counter-espionage last December that clarified the Counter-espionage Law (2014) and defined activities threatening national security apart from espionage. Among these was “fabricating or distorting facts, publishing or disseminating words or information that endanger state security.”12 Influencing the outside world, therefore, is not just a historical activity of the party, but an ongoing requirement for national security as defined by the party-state.
The CCP documents and media identify several areas of activity that Americans would describe as influence operations or fall under the framework of covert action. Principal among these activities are united front work and external propaganda work. They have a long history dating to the Chinese Revolution and the Civil War that followed World War II.
The most important is united front work, a Leninist heritage imported the party’s Soviet counterparts. Mao Zedong’s pithy description of united front work continues to resonate in the party’s publications: “to mobilize [the party’s] friends to strike at [the party’s] enemies.” Mao described it as a kind of “magic weapon” on par with the military power of the Red Army (the revolutionary era name for the PLA). The purpose of united front work is to build politically-useful coalitions or social organizations and mobilize them for political action. United front publications and Xi Jinping’s speeches identify supporting great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, safeguarding the party-state’s core interests, and pursuing national unification as the key objectives of united front work.
The second most important is propaganda work, which like united front work, has both internal and external dimensions. External propaganda is delivered through a variety of means, including media networks at home and abroad, spokespeople, academics, and nearly any other venue that can conceived to broadcast information. Developing international “discourse power” has been a party priority for at least the last decade.13 The analysis of how best to use propaganda in party publications shows that the CCP understands that it is not just Beijing’s messages or the country’s comprehensive national power that matter. The party also needs to shape international values and build a seemingly independent grassroots method for generating messages to ensure CCP messaging is received with the intended effect.14
CCP Institutions of Influence Operations
The organization of influence operations flows down from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) to the grassroots levels of the party. This is not an area in which we can say the CCP leadership does not know what is happening. United front work and propaganda work continue to be key elements of the party’s day-to-day operations, and both departments (or their predecessors) have been stable parts of the party center.
Three layers exist in this system, including the responsible CCP officials, the executive or implementing agencies, and supporting agencies that bring platforms or capabilities to bear in support of united front and propaganda work.
On the first level, several CCP officials oversee the party organizations responsible for influence operations. They sit on the PBSC and the Politburo. The senior-most united front official is the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) chairman, who is the fourth-ranking PBSC member. The other two are the Politburo members who direct the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and the Propaganda Department. They often sit on the CCP Secretariat, which is empowered to make day-to-day decisions for the routine functioning of the party-state.
A look at the leaders who have held the CPPCC chairmanship suggests that Western observers have been far too quick to condemn the CPPCC as a mostly-useless advisory body. The list is a who’s who of the party, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Li Xiannian. Deng Xiaoping used the position to launch his ideological attacks on Hua Guofeng and define the coming Reform Era, because the CPPCC chairman has wide latitude to speak on party thought. Tianjin Party Secretary Li Ruihuan led the body in the 1990s, and, from today’s vantage point, it is easy to forget that Li was a significant challenger to Jiang Zemin. Although one can argue that Jia Qinglin was Jiang’s lackey put in place to stack the PBSC, his successor and the last CPPCC chairman Yu Zhengsheng was someone of very different standing and capability. Yu was known as the Deng family proxy within the party center, and his competence and usefulness helped him survive the defection of his brother to the United States in 1985.15
The new CPPCC chairman, Wang Yang, continues a tradition of competent leadership at the top of the united front system. Wang is former vice premier and party secretary of Guangdong Province and Chongqing. Wang has a reformer reputation within the CCP context— and is known for ably handling foreign interlocutors because of his easygoing and sometimes jocular manner. He exemplifies the need of united front personnel to be highly-disciplined party cadre, who are nonetheless capable of handling themselves among diverse people and feigning ideological flexibility.16
The UFWD and Propaganda Department leaders are typical of senior party officials who rose because they served in a variety of provincial and central positions. In addition to serving in specialized, technocratic or staff positions, they also have general experience on provincial party committees. UFWD director You Quan is the former party secretary of Fujian and served for two decades in progressively more senior staff positions in the State Council General Office. Propaganda Department director Huang Kunming moved up the party ranks, before taking over the Zhejiang Propaganda Department in 2007 in his first position within this system. After a brief stint as Hangzhou Party Secretary in 2012-2013, he became a deputy director in the Propaganda Department. Such experience climbing the party hierarchy are typical of past leaders. The critical commonality among the leadership of these bureaucracies is that they understand the party at least as well if not better than the technical craft of their institutions.
The second level contains the three-party organizations headed by the aforementioned leaders. These are the leading agencies through which the CCP builds political influence and power. The CPPCC, according to the organization’s website, is “an organization in the patriotic united front of the Chinese people, an important organ for multiparty cooperation and political consultation.” The advisory body mediates between important socials groups and the party apparatus. The CPPCC is the place where all the relevant united front actors inside and outside the party come together: party elders, intelligence officers, diplomats, propagandists, military officers and political commissars, united front workers, academics, and businesspeople. They are gathered to receive instruction in the proper propaganda lines and ways to characterize Beijing’s policies to both domestic and foreign audiences. Many of these individuals, particularly if they hold government positions, are known for their people-handling skills and have reputations for being smooth operators. CPPCC membership offers access to political circles, political protection for business, and minor perquisites like expedited immigration. The CPPCC standing committee includes twenty or so vice chairpeople who have a protocol rank roughly equivalent to a provincial party secretary. At the central level, the CPPCC includes more than 2,200 members, but the provincial and local levels include another 615,000.
The UFWD is the executive agency for united front work. It has a variety of responsibilities at home and abroad, including in the following areas: Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan affairs; ethnic and religious affairs; domestic and external propaganda; entrepreneurs and non-party personages; intellectuals; and people-to-people exchanges.17 The department also takes the lead in establishing party committees in Chinese and now foreign businesses. The UFWD operates at all levels of the party system from the center to the grassroots, and the CCP has had a united front department dating to the 1930s.
In the government reforms announced in March, the UFWD is set to absorb the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) from the State Council.18 The OCAO is routinely involved in Chinese communities overseas, and, from its central to local levels, it brings community leaders, media figures, and researchers back to China for meetings and conferences. The official description includes several points relevant to the discussion here: “to enhance unity and friendship in overseas Chinese communities; to maintain contact with and support overseas Chinese media and Chinese language schools; [and] to increase cooperation and exchanges between overseas Chinese and China related to the economy, science, culture and education.”
The Propaganda Department has been a core part of the CCP since 1924. The official description of its duties includes conducting the party’s theoretical research; guiding public opinion; guiding and coordinating the work of the central news agencies, including Xinhua and People’s Daily; guiding the propaganda and cultural systems; and administering the Cyberspace Administration of China and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television.19
On the third level, many other party-state organizations contribute to the party’s influence operations. Their focus is not on united front or propaganda work, but they still have capabilities and responsibilities that can be used for these purposes. Many of these agencies share cover or front organizations when they are involved in influence operations, and such platforms are sometimes lent to other agencies when appropriate: Ministry of State Security; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Culture; Ministry of Education; State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs; Ministry of Civil Affairs; Xinhua News Agency; and Liaison Bureau of the PLA Political Work Department.
The CCP’s Lines of Effort
There are many ways to categorize the party’s activities to influence and shape the world, and Beijing leverages all means of national power to do so. Diplomatic and economic tools are at least as much of the party’s toolkit as united front work and propaganda. For the purposes of this essay, there are three areas of CCP effort that deserve attention: shaping the context; controlling the Chinese diaspora; and targeting the political core. Each of these areas, as has been implied above, helps the party keep dangerous ideas at arm’s length or preempt their use to the detriment of the party. The net effect of these activities is to reflect the CCP’s power and authority back into China for PRC citizens to hear and see. This highlights the strength of the party and the absence of an international challenge to its legitimacy and authority.
Shaping the Context. The CCP spends a great deal of effort on seemingly softer measures to shape the context through which China is understood. Context-shaping can be understood in two distinct, but related, ways apart from the propaganda lines deployed by party-controlled media at home and abroad. The first is generating self-regulating behavior. Such behavior is difficult to identify and prove the party’s actions to be the root cause. Moreover, the more the targets of CCP influence self-regulate, the less effort the party needs to put in monitoring, cajoling, pressuring, and punishing them. The most notable example is the manipulation of visa approvals. Everyone in the China studies field is aware that they must be careful with what they say and write. Twenty or more years ago, visa denials were rare, and the few people blacklisted and what they had done were well-known. Now, younger and younger analysts have visa troubles, and the general frustration of dealing with what is sometimes a capricious visa process makes it difficult to know when one has crossed a red line. This kind of manipulation was described by Perry Link as the “anaconda in the chandelier,” which encourages self-censorship rather than upsetting the snake lurking above.20The idealistic, if not totalitarian, objective of self-regulation has long been a fundamental part of the party’s state security strategy, especially inside China.21
A second part of shaping the context is relationship building and the manipulation of access to encourage cooperation with the CCP and to help choose which voices speak with authority about China. The party manipulates access to archives, government records, and officials, consequently shaping how China is understood by what is known and who can write or speak authoritatively. Journalists, analysts, and scholars go to print with the information they have. Locking foreign individuals and institutions into arrangements for this access also encourages the aforementioned self-regulation. As China’s international prominence has grown, so too has the perceived need to be engaged there on the part of self-styled international institutions, like universities or academic presses. CCP programs, like Confucius Institutes, in some sense are less important for their specific content than for establishing a relationship. By facilitating investment in facilities, research collaboration, or programs, the CCP creates a vulnerable relationship that can be used to apply pressure to an organization unless the latter is prepared to walk away.
Controlling the Chinese Diaspora. The CCP attempts to mobilize Chinese at home and abroad by incentivizing cooperation, discouraging neutrality, and coercing compliance. This protects the party’s rule, including tightening social control and building its legitimacy. In pursuing both objectives abroad, the party uses surveillance and propaganda. A great deal of effort is expended monitoring diaspora communities and PRC citizens who leave China for extended periods. Government officials posted abroad and journalists attempt to track individuals who attend politically-sensitive events and show up for pro-PRC rallies. There also are numerous anecdotes that students’ social media accounts are monitored and, in some cases, more intrusive electronic or Internet-based surveillance is used. Such monitoring sometimes precedes intimidation and pressure, including implicit and explicit threats to family members back in China or even the detention of those family members.22 For families now living entirely outside of China, embassy and consular officials sometimes will call families and friends in China to provide a warning.
Over the last 15 years, the CCP steadily chipped away at independent Chinese-language media overseas. Media control was built up through outright purchases of existing organizations, purchase by proxy, or driving independent newspapers bankrupt by organizing advertiser boycotts. One newspaper editor told the Sydney Morning Herald that the CCP controlled perhaps 95 percent of the Chinese-language newspapers in Australia.23 Today, the largest non-CCP media in the Chinese language are all associated with the Falun Gong. Falun Gong newspapers, like the Epoch Times, however, can have difficulty finding shelf space.24 Overseas Chinese media owners and publishers attend conferences back in China where they can be told the current and upcoming propaganda lines.
The CCP also mobilizes overseas Chinese, regardless of citizenship, to turn out for leadership visits as well as protests of the Dalai Lama, territorial disputes, or other political events viewed unfavorably by Beijing, and, in the past, the Olympic torch relay. Community organizations are used to drive letter-writing campaigns to legislators to pressure them in directions favorable to Beijing. Participation is driven in part by the surveillance and coercive apparatus behind the invitations from the embassies, consulates, and CCP-controlled community organizations. Many overseas Chinese participants undoubtedly are exercising their freedom of association willingly, but at least some feel the pressure to participate as political props.25
Targeting the Political Core. The CCP targets the political and policy elite from above and below. At the top levels, the CCP engages unwitting naïfs and witting co-conspirators to deliver its messages directly to U.S. decisionmakers without filtering through staff. These individuals often are successful in business, possessing gravitas and a reputation for knowing China. In the past, CCP leaders like Zhou Enlai made explicit statements about the need to cultivate these people by helping them succeed in China, so they could act as a CCP constituency on a foreign shore.26 For former government officials and influential analysts, the most public example of this cultivation is through dialogues and exchanges. A number of US-China Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues are managed by united front organizations on the Chinese side, such as the Sanya Initiative. These meetings offer the access and opportunity to brief US participants on particular messages or themes. The value comes from US participants who are able to relay those messages without staff filtering to senior policymakers. Although Americans often see these dialogues as a way for mutual influence, the united front cadre chosen for these meetings are those the party trusts to operate in an ideologically loose environment but still maintain party discipline.27
The CCP also exploits the exoticism with which foreigners treat China. The mystique has given rise to a cottage industry of people interpreting China or leveraging their political connections to open doors for US businesses. These consultants, especially former officials, are paid by the US business, but Beijing may directed the company to engage this or that consultant as a way to reward their service or ensure they have the financial support to air their views. The business gains access to China. The consultant gets paid and then assists the CCP in delivering its reassuring messages to colleagues still serving in government. The rewards of this approach, especially as retiring government officials, can be quite lucrative. For example, former Australian trade minister Andrew Robb received an AUS$880,000 per year consulting contract with a Chinese firm after he left government in 2016.28
At the lower levels, the CCP through community organizations assists the political careers of sympathetic persons. Local races do not require the same resources as national elections. At this stage, even limited support in the form of election funds or voter turnout can make the difference. And today’s councilperson is tomorrow’s congressional representative. Australian, Canadian, and US counterintelligence officials all have reported seeing CCP efforts to cultivate the careers of local politicians.29 This is much cheaper than trying to subvert a sitting national-level politician with established loyalties, and this kind of long-term seeding effort has been seen in China’s intelligence activities.30
Conclusion: The Nature of the Challenge
The CCP’s united front and propaganda efforts challenge democratic governments in ways fundamentally different than traditional security concerns. Although the potential for misunderstanding exists, the lines of war and peace as well as proportionate or appropriate responses are reasonably well understood inside and between governments. The political interference is more like a constant friction with China, infringing on core values like sovereignty as well as freedom of speech; yet, many potential responses seem to those living in democracies either disproportionate or as damaging as CCP interference.
The cost of inaction, however, is a steady erosion of sovereignty in a number of areas, such as the integrity of electoral and policymaking processes as well as individual civil rights. United front and propaganda work are unlike covert actions performed by Western governments for several reasons, but the most important is that they are ordinary, routine matters of policy rather than specially-authorized activities. This is the significance of having such policymakers as part of the Politburo at the party’s core. Progression can be seen in the party’s steady takeover of Chinese-language media outfits to agreements with mainstream media to publish CCP content, or the relentless cooptation of local Chinese community organizations. Just like the party’s security concept, there is no obvious end to the number of neutral or allied groups and individuals that the party needs to influence. Those already coopted or recruited may retire or die; the need to interfere always will be there for the CCP when it views the world as it does.
Western governments — many of which have a history of discriminatory policies toward their Chinese communities — tread a narrow line between protecting their Chinese citizens from the party’s predatory behavior and violating democratic freedoms. Yet, not responding means that overseas Chinese are treated as second-class citizens, whose freedoms are not protected. Overzealous, generalized responses risk alienating the Chinese communities most directly affected on a daily basis. They are the most knowledgeable about what the CCP is doing on American and foreign streets, on whom it devotes a large portion of its effort, if that does not necessarily lead to cooperation or complicity. Overseas Chinese are our citizens and permanent residents, deserving of equal protection under the law.
Responding effectively begins with prioritizing the problem at the political level so that relevant government departments have cover to build the necessary expertise. Given how little general scholarship exists on the united front and propaganda work, this will not be an easy process.31 Knowledge of how the CCP functions in these arenas also needs to reach a level of granularity that in some cases reaches a legal standard of evidence to guide the policy response effectively. This knowledge can then be mapped onto the party’s activities to see where they lead in democratic societies. Starting from the CCP allows democracies to preserve the assumption of innocence and avoid the mistake of casting wholesale suspicion over their Chinese communities.
Sustaining a public discussion about what is appropriate or inappropriate engagement with the CCP also must form a key part of the response. In a democracy, the government resources always will focus on the illegal. Much of the CCP’s influence operations occur in a grey area that is not always illegal. For example, there is nothing illegal about Confucius Institutes or endowing a university chair. What is appropriate and acceptable in dealing with the CCP or its proxies can be discussed, and the rules of engagement only can be sorted out through conversation.