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China: magic weapons and “plausible deniability”

Attention has understandably focused on the designs abroad of the United Front Work Department, yet more profound effects may be felt within China’s borders.

China: magic weapons and “plausible deniability”
Published 30 Apr 2018   Follow @GraemeKSmith

This article is based on Episode 20 of The Little Red Podcast with Gerry Groot of the University of Adelaide. We’re also pleased to announce The Little Red Podcast is a finalist in this year’s Australian Podcast Awards, in the News and Current Affairs category.

Xi Jinping’s radical overhaul of the Chinese bureaucracy is not, as Xinhua would have you believe, just about streamlining government administration and reducing “red tape”. A host of state agencies that once stood between the public and the Chinese Communist Party have been done away with.

One of the chief beneficiaries is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the same department whose influence operations have made headline news in Australia. 

Government bodies, including the Religious Affairs Bureau, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, and the State Council’s Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, have been absorbed by the UFWD. While the “nameplate” of these offices will likely be maintained for foreign consumption, the move demonstrates the importance Xi places on the party’s nearly century-old United Front strategy.

The strategy was developed during the 1920s and 1930s to ensure the survival of the CCP, to undermine the Nationalists from within, and to raise funds among the diaspora. Mao nominated it as one of the three “magic weapons” that brought victory in the civil war, yet held a deep suspicion of cadres involved in United Front work.

It involved collaboration with those outside the “natural constituencies” of the party, such as capitalists, intellectuals, and religious leaders. The mission was a simple wartime approach: win over or eliminate. Ironically, cadres who tried to defend United Front allies after the CCP took power, such as revolutionary leaders Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, soon found themselves in Mao’s cross hairs.

While the recent rise of the UFWD was in train under Hu Jintao, what was once only paid lip service has been given higher status under Xi. The UFWD now outranks the CCP’s Organisation Bureau and Propaganda Department. The University of Adelaide’s Gerry Groot argues that Xi has made his endorsement absolutely clear by appearing at numerous United Front functions:

It shows every official downstream that if Xi is taking it seriously, we should too. Now they’re going to be called to account. With the anti-corruption campaign and all these other imperatives, to be seen to be not doing something will be seen to be a political act.

This is not merely a shift in the wind’s direction – Xi has added 40,000 cadres to the UFWD’s ranks. Given that China’s substantial aid program was until last month run by less than 100 officials in the Department of Foreign Aid, this is a staggering increase of personnel in a system where the party strictly controls the nomenklatura.

Attention has understandably focused on the UFWD’s designs abroad, with Xi vowing “to fight the bloody battle against our enemies … with a strong determination to take our place in the world”. Yet coupled with the party’s newfound intolerance for religious expression and ethnic separatism, this boost in the stocks of the UFWD may have more profound effects within China’s borders. 

Groot sees parallels with the United Front’s approach to capitalists in the 1950s, which moved from peaceful coexistence and different forms of ownership to “assimilation and confiscation” when Mao declared socialism realised in 1956. Under Hu and Jiang, religious and ethnic expression was tolerated, and even encouraged. Not so under Xi.

Groot speculates that Xi’s confidence in the social, political, cultural, and economic dominance of Han China is such to believe the CCP can force assimilation:

That might explain why those 40,000 people were employed, to help push this transition through.

To understand the complicated implications of United Front work for Australia, I encourage you to listen to the episode. Rather than naming the UFWD’s foot soldiers in Australia – ground covered by Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske in their submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security – Groot offers the example of the fictitious “Australian Association for Buddhists from Guangxi” to illustrate the importance of “plausible deniability” for UFWD activities in Australia:

It could represent all those people, or it could only represent a couple of people. A lot of these groups are created by entrepreneurs who try to parlay community associations into political influence in Australia. Or they’re doing it deliberately to curry favor with the United Front Department and get benefits that way.

If you have something specific say on Chinese Muslims, [and] there’s a discussion in Australia about policy in China regarding Muslims, then the tendency of the Australian media is to balance. So they’ll look for a community organisation to balance the claims of someone else, and they naturally come to these sorts of organisations, which then endorse the party line.

It’s a wonderful advantage for the United Front Department because it allows all sorts of plausible deniability.

Denials about UFWD operations in Australia are sure to continue. Sharp divisions are emerging among policymakers and scholars about how serious a threat UFWD operations pose: one scholar’s threat to sovereignty is another’s panicky comments.

It’s important for China scholars to keep an open mind and not to line up neatly along friend–enemy lines. If China scholars continue to feel the need to launch ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their views about CCP influence operations, nothing will please the UFWD more.


Photo via Flickr user Joann Pittman

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