“Chinese Assistance Centers” Grow United Front Work Department Global Presence

South African and PRC officials at the opening of the 13th "Chinese Community and Police Co-Operation Center" in Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Oct. 28, 2018).

A network of thirteen “Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centres” (hereafter: “police cooperation centers”) established by PRC expatriates in South Africa recently became the subject of a minor controversy in that nation. Photos of the opening ceremony for the thirteenth center in Port Elizabeth, the largest city in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, were heavily criticized by some South African social media users. Comments accused the country’s leadership of allowing the PRC to establish police stations on South African soil, and of having “sold our country to the highest Bider [sic]” (Facebook, October 30). These commenters are mistaken, in that the centers are not police stations. But they are less mistaken, in the sense that the centers appear to have a more complicated relationship with the PRC government than they generally acknowledge publicly.

Both the PRC embassy and the centers are open about embassy support for the centers, in the form of money and personnel. Both parties emphasize that the centers exist for the legitimate reason of protecting the lives and property of individuals of Chinese descent in South Africa by facilitating a more productive relationship with South African police. But in their English statements, neither party mentions that the center’s top leader also runs an important United Front Work Department body, one with expressly political aims, and in which capacity he has repeatedly expressed strong public support for CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s political agenda. Nor do they address the fact that the police centers are part of a global network of “Overseas Chinese Service Centers” (华助中心) sponsored by the United Front Work Department, with chapters in countries around the world, including the United States and Canada. In South Africa, the United States, and Canada, the centers’ leaders meet with UFWD-tied officials, host events where speakers repeat CCP political slogans, and socialize with prominent politicians from their host countries.

Origins, Purpose, and Connections of the Police Cooperation Centers

According to the organization’s website, the police cooperation centers were founded in 2004 to protect the safety and property of PRC expatriates in South Africa, by facilitating more effective cooperation with local police through services such as translation and language training. The need for such a service is apparent, since South Africa has genuine public safety issues, many PRC expatriates do not speak English well, and PRC workers and storekeepers are frequent targets of violent crime (China Daily, March 25 2013). The centers have for many years received financial and other support from the PRC embassy in South Africa, a fact which neither party has sought to conceal (CPPCC homepage). In a statement meant to address the social media controversy, the Chinese embassy accurately described the police cooperation centers as “strictly non-profit Chinese associations” with “none law enforcement authority [sic]”, that are meant to “participate in the community policing mechanisms led by the South African police, and to cooperate closely with the South African police in preventing and combating criminals [sic] against Chinese community in SA” (PRC Consulate in Cape Town, November 28).

South African government officials have frequently expressed support for the centers. For example, the opening of the Port Elizabeth center featured an address by Lieutenant General Liziwe Ntshinga—the Eastern Cape provincial police commissioner. She lauded the center’s work, saying “with the strengthened and deepened relationship between South Africa and China, the South African Police Service has benefited by finding its role in order to further the existing relationship within the police and the Chinese community” (This Is Africa, November 2). But while the centers appear to do work that is welcomed by both South Africans and South Africa’s PRC expatriate community, it is unclear whether all supporters of the centers’ efforts are aware of the full nature and extent of the centers’ ties with the PRC government.

Earlier this year, the chairmanship of the police cooperation centers was passed from Wu Shaokang (吴少康) to Li Xinzhu (李新铸) (Zhongguo Qiaowang, March 24). Both men have established successful business careers in South Africa—among other pursuits, Wu Shaokang helped found the Africa Times (非洲时报), an important local Chinese-language paper—and have acted as the public face of the organization in events and interviews with English-language media. However, no English-language reporting on the police cooperation centers has noted the fact that Wu and Li are also leaders of the Africa chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (中国和平统一促进会), an important United Front body. Wu Shakang has served as the Africa chapter’s honorary chairman, while Li Xinzhu has been its chairman since 2002 (Zhongguo Cutonghui, August 23 2011; Zhongguo Cutonghui, October 22 2015). Li Xinzhu is also a member in long standing of the organization’s global standing committee (Zhongguo Cutonghui, November 11).

The Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (hereafter: “peaceful reunification councils”) was established in 1988 at the behest of former PRC paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. It has chapters in 87 countries, many with numerous sub-chapters (CCPPR website). Its stated purpose is to “raise high the flag of patriotism, and unite all Chinese compatriots around the world who support a unified China” (CCPPR bylaws). The organization is directly supervised by the CCP’s United Front Department under the direction of Wang Yang, the CCP Politburo Standing Committee’s fourth-ranking member (CCPPR website; China Brief, February 13).

In statements to English-speaking interlocutors, peaceful reunification council members typically describe their organization in terms similar to the PRC embassy in South Africa’s description of the police centers: “private organizations, sharing commonalities with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) created in other countries to pursue civic-oriented causes such as environmental activism, political mobilization, and humanitarian relief” (China Brief, February 13 2017). However, peaceful reunification council officials in chapters around the world have engaged in political activities that appear to coincide with PRC interests. For example, media and government officials in Australia have identified wealthy members of peaceful reunification council members in that country as a major conduit for covert PRC influence (Sydney Morning Herald, July 16 2017). Billionaire Chau Chak Wing, one of the individuals identified, has brought defamation suits against several of the journalists, former officials, and media outlets involved in reporting on his his ties with the United Front Work Department and his political activities in Australia (Stuff.nz, October 7 2017).

Speaking in Chinese in his capacity as a peaceful reunification council official—not as the head of the police cooperation centers—Li Xinzhu frequently echoes the language of CCP leaders, expressing support for the political agenda of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, and claiming to have encouraged the involvement of like-minded overseas Chinese in South African politics. In interviews with PRC state media, Li describes his “China Dream” as “the earliest possible rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In the same story, Li describes his efforts to oppose Taiwanese independence by supporting the punishment of an ethnically Chinese member of a local legislature seat who expressed inappropriate thoughts on the “Taiwan question” (People’s Daily Overseas Edition, March 3 2013) [1]. More recently he spoke of the “South African government’s supportive, encouraging attitude for political participation by Chinese people”, and said that “the past few years . . . more and more Chinese people have become extremely interested in local government” (Ta Kung Pao, August 30). This description of his political activities came less than a year after he helped organize and lead an anti-Japanese protest in Johannesburg (Zhongguo Cutonghui, September 18 2012).

On another occasion, at a recent forum in Beijing held by the All-Chinese Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese—another important United Front Body—Li Xinzhu spoke effusively of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative, saying, “Everything the motherland does benefits our brothers in Africa! Over the course of our long relationship, they’ve taken to heart our sincere help. They absolutely support the Belt and Road!” (People’s Daily, August 30) [2]. This was just one of a number of occasions Li has spoken out on behalf of Belt and Road. He may be well positioned to benefit from an expansion of Belt and Road projects in South Africa: A PRC reporter interviewing him in 2013 wrote that his home was a 2,000 square-meter villa in a gated community, where he spoke of his business interests in malls and mining, and his success in winning South African government construction tenders (Newssc.org, September 19 2013).

The CCPCC and Overseas Chinese Service Centers

The police community centers also share another link with the CCP. As explained in Chinese on their website homepage, they are part of a global network of “Overseas Chinese Service Centers” (OCSC) established in 2014 by the PRC State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (CPPCC homepage). (The Overseas Chinese Affairs office was merged into the CCP’s United Front Work Department earlier this year.) In 2014, Qiu Yuanping (裘援平), the then-head of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, announced plans to establish such centers in 60 countries around the world (Center for China and Globalization, March 19 2014). To date, the OCSC website lists 45 centers in 39 different countries (China Qiaowang; see Figure 1).

A map of OCSCs globally (New Zealand excluded). Source: http://channel.chinaqw.com/cns/c/hzzx-zxjj.shtml

A full review of the entire range of OCSC activities is beyond the scope of this article. Closer examination of several of the OCSCs does, however, show that some share traits in common with the police centers of South Africa. They appear to be, in most cases, pre-existing organizations that were later given an OCSC designation by the State Council. They describe themselves in their English language materials as not-for-profit community services organizations, meant to help newly arrived ethnically Chinese immigrants to integrate into their new societies (OCSA Toronto).

However, some of the OCSCs seem to share some of the same issues as the South African police community centers. The Chinese-language self-descriptions of the OCSCs in Houston and Toronto are both straightforward about their connection with the State Council and the PRC government. But their English-language self-descriptions do not mention the OCSC program or their State Council ties (Houston Chinese Civic Center; Hua Zhu Overseas Chinese Service Center).

Aside from helping new arrivals integrate, top officials from both the Houston and Toronto centers—as well as the police cooperation centers in South Africa—have met with Qiu Yuanping, the head of the State Council Overseas Chinese Office who initiated the OCSC program in 2014 (Chinese Civic Center; Hua Zhu; China News, December 10 2015). The United Front’s cultivation of these organizations appears to have paid dividends, if judged by their leaders’ willingness to associate themselves with CCP political slogans. The Toronto center issued a Chinese New Year’s greeting this year on behalf of PRC Toronto consul general He Wei that listed the CCP’s 19th Party Congress as one of the PRC’s greatest accomplishments of the past year, and echoed Xi Jinping’s declaration that “socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era”  (Hua Zhu, February 9). Last year, the center also hosted a welcome banquet for the consul general, where Xingyong Lin, the president of the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations, said “a powerful motherland is the source of incomparable pride and gratitude for the great masses of overseas Chinese. [We will] give Consul He our strongest support and cooperation …. to realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”

Meanwhile, each year on October 1st, the PRC’s founding date, the Houston center organizes a banquet commemorating the holiday, which frequently hosts and honors prominent politicians from Houston and around Texas. Past guests of honor at the banquet have included former president George H.W. Bush and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Chinese Civic Center; Chinese Civic Center). At the 2016 banquet, Peng Mei, the current vice-chair of the center’s board of directors, commemorated the occasion by saying, “67 years ago today, a New China was founded. Through many difficulties … it has comprehensively developed its economy and technology, moving step by step towards the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, realizing the new era of the ‘Chinese dream” (Chinese Civic Center, October 2 2016). At the 2014 banquet, then-Houston PRC consul general Li Qiangmin reviewed for the assembled dignitaries the accomplishments of sixty-five years of the People’s Republic, summing them up by saying “We have the confidence to continue along the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, moving towards the two goals of our struggle [and] the ‘two centenary goals’ [3]. In the end we will realize the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” (Chinese Civic Center, September 27 2014).

Conclusion

None of the above constitutes proof of unacceptable political interference or influence on the part of anyone associated with the Overseas Chinese Service Centers or the police cooperation centers of South Africa. These organizations appear to have arisen to meet the legitimate needs of a community—overseas Chinese—that is often underserved or overlooked by local authorities, regardless of the country where they live. And democratic countries everywhere should welcome and encourage the participation of new citizens in their local politics.

However, as the case of Australia has shown, the CCP can and does seek to use overseas Chinese communities—and ambitious individuals within those communities—as mouthpieces and advocates for its preferred policies, particularly where those countries’ policy towards the PRC is concerned. As the PRC’s wealth and power grow, so too do the inducements it can offer to overseas Chinese who seek to remain connected to the “motherland”. In this vein, the activities of the above organizations and their leaders appear to reflect political concerns above and beyond the scope of the non-governmental, non-profit missions they espouse, and may bear closer scrutiny in the future.

Matt Schrader is the editor of the Jamestown China Brief. Follow him on Twitter at @tombschrader.

Notes

[1] Li Xinzhu’s predecessor Wu Shaokang has also spoken publicly about his “China Dream”, which has included organizing efforts by ethnically Chinese individuals throughout Africa to oppose Taiwanese independence (Nanfei8, December 9, 2014).

[2] The forum in question was extremely high profile. Its opening ceremony was attended by the entire Politburo Standing Committee, including PRC paramount leader Xi Jinping (PRC Government, August 29).

[3] The ‘two centenary goals’ are Xi Jinping’s two overarching policy goals, first articulated after he took office in 2012. They are that by 2021, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CCP, the PRC will have “built a moderately prosperous society in all respects”, and that by 2049—the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the PRC—the country will have become “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” (Xinhua, October 17 2017).