A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Operations in Japan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 12

A June 2019 meeting sponsored by CAIFC (a “people-to-people diplomacy” arm of the PLA Political Department Liaison Department) with representatives of the Japanese religious movement Agon Shu. (Source: CAIFC)


The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s China Military Power Report, released in January 2019, revealed the agency’s official assessment that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is conducting “political warfare” against the United States and Taiwan—and among other countries, Japan. [1] Political warfare is a set of overt and covert tools used by governments to influence the perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors of other governments and societies in order to achieve national objectives. [2] While the nature of political warfare conducted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against the United States and Taiwan is better understood by the public—due largely to the two governments’ unclassified public disclosures, media reports, and academic research papers—the means by which the CCP is engaged in malign influence operations against Japan are less clear. The institutions and methods by which these efforts are conducted, and their potential effectiveness in influencing Tokyo, are due for examination.

United Front Work in Japan

A little understood but critically important means by which the CCP engages in influence operations is “united front work” (tongzhan gongzuo, 统战工作): a whole-of-society strategy that aims to influence, indoctrinate, and mobilize non-CCP persons and organizations to serve the Party’s objectives (USCC Testimony, April 5, 2018; China Brief, May 9). CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has referred to united front work as a “magic weapon” for advancing the Party’s goals (Wilson Center, September 2017), and united front-oriented organizations have risen in prominence during Xi’s tenure (China Brief, April 24, 2018; China Brief, May 9).

The China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification

A key united front organization with an extensive network and international presence is the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (Zhongguo Heping Tongyi Cujin Hui, 中国和平统一促进会), or CCPPR (China Brief, May 9). The CCPPR is directly subordinate to the CCP’s United Front Work Department (Tongyi Zhanxian Gongzuo Bu, 统一战线工作部), or UFWD. The Japanese branch of CCPPR was established in Tokyo in 2000, and is led by Chen Fupo (陈福坡) (CCPPR, 2013). Affiliate branches of the CCPPR, which coordinate events and activities with each other, include the All-Japan Overseas Chinese China Peaceful Reunification Council (全日本華僑華人中国平和統一促進会), created in 2005 and headed by Ling Xingguang (凌星光);  and the All-Japan Chinese Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Unification of China (全日本華人促進中国平和統一協議会), created in 2018 (Sina.com, February 19, 2018) and headed by Zheng Zhengquan (郑正权) and Yang Kezhen (楊克俭) (CCPPR, undated; Huaqiao Bao, February 1). An additional affiliated organization listed on the CCPPR’s website is the Japan Overseas Chinese Federation (日本华侨华人联合会) (CCPPR, undated). These organizations function in part as conduits for civil society exchanges and efforts to influence local discourse (WOIPFG, May 20, 2011).

The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries

Another influence apparatus with a Japan focus is The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (Zhongguo Renmin Duiwai Youhao Xiehui, 中国人民对外友好协会), or CPAFFC. The CPAFFC is headed by Li Xiaolin (李小林, b. 1953), the daughter of former Chinese president Li Xiannian (李先念)—and the spouse of the hawkish retired PLA Air Force (PLAAF) General Liu Yazhou (刘亚洲, b. 1952). CPAFFC has a bureau dedicated to Japan work, and provides a channel through which Japan and the PRC have conducted numerous senior “people-to-people” dialogues (CPAFFC, undated). This platform’s activities, self-described as public diplomacy, appear to be largely directed at elite exchanges and may reinforce elite capture activities (see discussion further below).

The China Association for International Friendly Contact

The China Association for International Friendly Contact (Zhongguo Guoji Youhao Lianluo Hui, 中国国际友好联络会), or CAIFC, is a major platform of the People’s Liberation Army General Political Department Liaison Department (GPD/LD) (now subsumed into the Central Military Commission Political Work Department). CAIFC is likely subordinate to what was formerly known as the GPD/LD intelligence bureau. Established in December 1984, CAIFC facilitates influence operations through PRC foreign affairs, state security, united front, propaganda, and military channels. [3] CAIFC has directed exchange activities towards a broad range of sectors of Japanese society, to include: spiritual associations (e.g., Agon Shu, 阿含宗) (CAIFC, February 16); architects (CAIFC, October 25, 2017); calligraphy associations (CAIFC, undated); retired military officers (CAIFC, June 25, 2017); and global printing companies (e.g., Toppan, 日本凸版印刷公司) (CAIFC, July 19, 2017). CAIFC has also hosted national-level competitions involving Japanese players for the board game Go (CAIFC, November 1, 2018).

Friendship and Trade Associations

In addition to front organizations directly subordinate to or affiliated with the CCP, there are also legitimate local organizations in Japan that engage with UFWD and other PRC political warfare organizations—some perhaps doing so knowingly, and others not. There are at least seven known Sino-Japanese friendship associations based in Japan that actively promote “cultural exchanges” between Japan and China. These associations include: the Japan China Friendship Association (日中友好協会); the Association for the Promotion of International Trade, Japan (日本国際貿易促進協会) (JAPIT, undated); the Association of Japan-China Cultural Exchange (日中文化交流協会) (Nicchubunka, undated); the Japan-China Economic Association (日中経済協会) (JCEA, undated); the Japan-China Friendship Legislative Alliance (日中友好議員联盟); the Japan-China Association (日中協会); and the Japan-China Friendship Center (日中友好会館) (JCFC, undated).

Confucius Institutes

Confucius Institutes have come under greater scrutiny in recent years within Western countries, in part due to growing awareness of the Chinese government’s control over their operations, and concerns over infringements on academic freedom in the host institutions. There are similar concerns in Japan regarding the ulterior motives of some Confucius Institutes in the country. While seemingly not as active as in the West, there are 15 Confucius Institutes in Japan (and 8 Confucius Classrooms)—a number that is on the high end when compared to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The Institutes are mostly established in smaller universities in various regions of Japan (English Hanban.org). Similar to concerns within the United States over the PRC Embassy’s interference in Chinese student associations overseas, some analysts in Japan have also expressed concerned about the activities of Chinese students and scholars associations and their relationship with the PRC Embassy in Japan (Foreign Policy, March 7, 2018).

Elite Capture

A key element of political warfare is the dissemination of propaganda. The most effective target audiences for foreign propaganda are the political elites of the targeted country, since they exercise power and can make policy decisions that directly affect CCP interests. These channels are also often the most difficult to definitively analyze and uncover, given caution and sensitivities over the matter. The strongest pro-China political faction in Japan’s political system has historically been the Tanaka/Takeshita faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). [4] However, the influence of this faction has been significantly marginalized over the years. Other political groups that may be more susceptible to being influenced by the CCP for either ideological reasons, or for economic and political rationales, are: the religious movement-based Komeito, which is part of the ruling-LDP coalition; pacifist factions within the LDP; and powerful factions within the opposition coalition headed by Ichirō Ozawa.

Economic Pressures Applied Through Rare Earth Elements

In 2010, amid growing tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, Beijing restricted rare earth exports to Japan—ostensibly to put pressure on the Japanese government to modify its positions on the dispute. Rare earths are vital materials used in the production of many advanced high-tech devices, including many with defense applications. As a result of this experience, in which Japan’s high-tech sector was acutely affected, Tokyo started developing batteries and other advanced technologies through processes that would require less rare earths (CNBC, September 23, 2010). In the context of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, there are countermeasures that Japan developed in the aftermath of the 2010 that may be instructive to the United States and other like-minded countries in their current efforts to modulate Chinese predatory trade behaviors (China Brief, April 22, 2011).

PRC Efforts to Cultivate Influence in Okinawa

The chain of islands in the East China Sea under Okinawa Prefecture is strategically important for the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Growing local opposition to U.S. military bases in Okinawa, and animosity towards the Japanese central government, have coincided with increased CCP attempts to engage with the island. In 2013, at a particularly tense point of the continuing conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, there was a propaganda blitz in Chinese official and semi-official media outlets that questioned Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa. In 2015, at least one Chinese official asserted that the Ryukyu Islands belonged as much to Beijing as they did to Japan (SCMP, May 15, 2013). There are also increasing economic ties between China and Okinawa: Chinese investors are engaged in the northern areas of Okinawa, which are rich in natural resources and populated by U.S. military facilities. Additionally, there has been a significant increase in the number Chinese tourists in Okinawa in recent years, as well as an increasing number of sister-city relationships formed between Chinese cities and Okinawa. 

The PRC government has also actively courted members of the former Okinawan royal family. In 2018, Shō Masamu, the great grandson of the last Ryukyu king, visited China. In March of that year, Masamu led a 22-member delegation to visit Fujian for a four-day “root-seeking” tour hosted by the Fujian Tuofu Culture and Education Foundation (Fujian Sheng Tuofu Wenjiao Jijinhui, 福建省拓福文教基金會), an organization created in 2013 with the aim to “inherit and promote” Chinese culture. Li Hong, Deputy Director-General of the Fujian Provincial Government, met with the delegation in Fuzhou (Fujian Provincial Government, April 3, 2018). In tandem with the trip, the Tuofu Foundation organized a conference with the Ryukyu Fukan Co., Ltd. (琉球福館株式會社), Fujian Tuofu Culture Development Co., Ltd. (福建拓福文化發展有限公司), and the Japan-China Youth Economic and Cultural Exchange Association (日中青年經濟文化交流協會) to explore the historical ties between Okinawa and China (KK News, March 19, 2018).


When compared to efforts directed at the United States or Taiwan, CCP political warfare activities against Japan are less readily apparent—or at least, not as openly discussed within the policy community of Japan, let alone the general public. Additionally, the effects, at least on the surface, appear to be not as evident or severe. Indeed, polling of Japanese public attitudes toward China have revealed strong negative feelings: for instance, in a survey conducted in 2018, 86.3 percent responded that they had either an unfavorable or relatively unfavorable opinion of China (GENRON-NPO, October 2018). Moreover, as noted by a recent Hoover Institute and Asia Society study: “… the kinds of covert Chinese influence operations that have come to light in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe—with one exception—are not easy to find in Japan.” [5] While it may be true that Japan’s government and society are less affected by CCP influence operations than might be the case in some other countries, it is not for a lack of the CCP’s capability to conduct political warfare and related activities in Japan. As this preliminary survey shows, the CCP remains intent on influencing the Japanese government and its people through multiple means and channels.

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and currently a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Advanced Asian Studies. He is a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and adjunct fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. The author would like to thank many anonymous interviewees for their insights. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and are not intended to reflect the positions of any of his affiliated organizations.


 [1] Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power 2019: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, p.99. https://www.dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/China_Military_Power_FINAL_5MB_20190103.pdf.

[2] George Kennan defined political warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures …, and ‘white’ propaganda, to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.” See: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945-50Intel/d269.

[3] Mark Stokes and Russel Hsiao, The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics (Project 2049 Institute, Oct. 14, 2013), pp. 20-26. https://project2049.net/2013/10/14/the-peoples-liberation-army-general-political-department-political-warfare-with-chinese-characteristics/.

[4] This faction drew its name from a former prime minister of Japan, Kakuei Tanaka, who served from 1972-1974 (immediately after the normalization of relations between Japan and the PRC). The faction was led after Tanaka’s death by another former prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, who served from 1987-1989.

[5] Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance (Hoover Institution, 2018), p. 165. https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/chineseinfluence_americaninterests_fullreport_web.pdf.