On the Correct Use of Terms

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 9

CCP officials in Hebei Province gather for a conference on united front work, November 2015. (Source: Hebei News Network)


In 2017 a Chinese company, CEFC China Energy, made international headlines when Patrick Ho Chi-ping, the General Secretary of its non-profit wing China Energy Fund Committee, was arrested in the United States on charges of bribing officials at the United Nations, in Chad, and in Uganda (Hong Kong Free Press, November 21, 2017). CEFC China Energy is nominally a private company, albeit one with close government connections (Fortune, September 28. 2016). It epitomizes the close party-state-military-market nexus of the political system in China, wherein corporate interests serve the political agenda of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). CEFC China Energy has been involved in energy investments with the military’s “princeling” elite, and its affiliate China Energy Fund Committee is a pro-CCP think tank with ties to retired military intelligence officers (South Sea Conversations, January 17, 2017).

CEFC China Energy and its subsidiary appear to have used investments and other economic inducements to buy local influence over policies in a number of states (Sinopsis, June 26, 2018). In the Czech Republic, CEFC chairman Ye Jianming was even installed as a “special adviser” to the Czech president (Sinopsis, February 8, 2018). Not long after Patrick Ho’s downfall, Ye Jianming was detained for questioning in China (SCMP, March 1, 2018). All CEFC’s assets have now been transferred to the state-owned CITIC group, underlining the company’s close connections to the CCP government (Global Voices, March 15).

The CEFC story is a well-documented case study of the CCP’s foreign interference activities via “red capitalist” proxies in pursuit of wider foreign policy goals. The topic of foreign interference and foreign influence has occupied a prominent place in the media spotlight over the last two years, and it has become an issue of deep concern for many governments. Commentators have struggled to summarize the CCP government’s foreign interference activities with a catch-all term that makes sense to the rest of the world. Being able to describe and define a phenomenon is essential for being able to address concerns about it. However, the activities described above do not neatly fit standard political science definitions of foreign policy, nor the foreign affairs approaches followed by most other governments.

Outside commentators frequently use the terms “foreign interference” or “foreign influence” to describe CCP-directed efforts to impact politics in other countries, prompting debates as to which term is best used when raising alarm bells about this phenomenon (RUSI, February 20). Sometimes “political warfare” is also used to describe such activities (The Strategist, June 5, 2018). Military and strategic analysts tend to use the term “gray zone strategies” (The National Interest, May 2, 2017). Some writers, including many CCP-affiliated ones, try to use the characterization of “soft power” to describe the CCP’s activities (The Wilson Center, September 18, 2017); however, Joseph Nye, who invented the soft power concept, rejects the PRC (and Russian) arrogation of his terminology (Foreign Policy, April 29, 2013). The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy has coined the phrase “sharp power” to describe the influence activities of authoritarian governments, while Russian scholars prefer “smart power” (International Forum for Democratic Studies, December 6, 2017). [1]

However, among Sinologists there has long been an emphasis on the need to use the CCP’s own terms when trying to understand the policies and intentions of the Chinese party-state. [2] If we seek to understand the People’s Republic of China (PRC), we must first endeavor to understand the CCP, its institutions, its policies, and its political terms. The CCP itself is very concerned about the correct terminology (tifa, 提法) employed in describing political matters. Emphasis on the correct use of terms on politically sensitive topics is an effective way of constraining public debate. [3]

What Is the Nature of “United Front Work”?

Whatever the term applied by outside observers, the term used by the CCP itself to describe such phenomena is “united front work” (tongyi zhanxian gongzuo, 统一战线工作). [4] This in turn can be broken down into “international united front work” (guoji tongzhan gongzuo, 国际统战工作), “foreign affairs work” (waishi gongzuo, 外事工作), and “overseas Chinese affairs work” (qiaowu gongzuo, 侨务工作) (Renminwang, March 14). [5] United front work is also a very important task within China’s domestic politics—and as with the CCP’s modernized propaganda activities, the boundaries between domestic united front work and internationally-oriented united front work are no longer distinct. [6]

The united front is a Leninist concept, which was further developed in Soviet and Communist Chinese practice. In his 1920 tract “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” Lenin stated:

The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and most thoroughly, carefully, attentively and skillfully making use without fail of every, even the smallest, “rift”’ among the enemies, of every antagonism of interest among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining a mass ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. [7]

Although some agencies of China’s party-state-military structure are more involved than others, united front work is an “all-of-Party activity” (quan dang de gongzuo, 全党的工作), and therefore a core task in which all Party members are required to participate (Xinhua, May 25, 2015). [8] The activities of entities engaged in united front work are subject to coordination and direction throughout the CCP-led political system, as captured by the slogan: “under unified leadership, coordinated, but working across a range of sectors” (tongyi lingdao, fenkou guanli, fenji fuze, xietiao peihe / 统一领导, 分口管理, 分级负责, 协调配合). [9]

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping is a strong promoter of united front work tactics, and has increased the resourcing and prominence for such efforts within the CCP political system (China Brief, April 24, 2018). Xi-era united front work activities fall into four primary categories:

  1. Efforts to control the Chinese diaspora, to utilize them as agents of Chinese foreign policy, and to suppress any hints of dissent.
  2. Efforts to coopt foreigners to support and promote the CCP’s foreign policy goals, and to provide access to strategic information and technical knowledge.
  3. Supporting a global, multi-platform, pro-PRC strategic communication strategy aimed at suppressing critical perspectives on the CCP and its policies, and promoting the CCP agenda.
  4. Supporting the China-centered economic, transportation, and communications strategic bloc known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

United front work has an important role in the PRC’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, which follows a three-pronged approach: (1) state-to-state interactions; (2) employment of military force; and (3) covert operations conducted via international united front work agents and organizations. In the latter category, a range of proxies engage in united front work with extra-Party forces, to include: “red capitalists,” Hong Kong and Taiwan “compatriots” (tong bao, 同胞—literally “same womb”), and the Chinese diaspora, as well as foreign political parties and foreign political, business and education leaders. Key organizations engaged in these functions include the CCP United Front Work Department (UFWD), which now directly controls the main organizations devoted to co-opting the Chinese diaspora; as well as the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), which is more focused on “party-to-party” dialogue (Renminwang, July 31, 2015). The range of organizations involved in CCP united front work will differ somewhat from country to country: for example, in countries where the Chinese diaspora is small in number, the activities of the International Liaison Department, or proxy companies such as CEFC China Energy, may be more prominent than the UFWD.

Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has also sought to reassert its control over the business sector, where Party control is now to the fore (EJI Insight, December 18, 2017). Nearly all of China’s listed internet companies have Party committees. Close to 70 percent of the CEOs of China’s major corporations are now CCP members (SCMP, November 25, 2018), and 70 percent of foreign companies working in China have a CCP cell (Bloomberg, March 12, 2018). This means that China’s corporate sector must also engage in united front work activities.

What Should Be Done in Response?

The CCP’s covert operations via united front work activities represent a massive challenge to the sovereignty of many states. Concerned governments should fund in-depth research on CCP united front work in their respective countries, and talk to the public on national security matters such as CCP united front work approaches and organizations. In this way the public, and especially political and business elites, will be able to have eyes wide open when engaging with the CCP and its proxies—and make better choices. Society has an important role in national security, and an informed society is the means to engage in total defense.

Governments must also institute a whole of government approach to upskill the public sector in knowledge of the CCP political system, and they should invest in Chinese language skills. They should employ more Chinese-speaking staff—while being mindful and protective of them due to the political pressure the CCP government puts them under to cooperate (Xinhua, February 17, 2017).

Chinese language skills should be mainstreamed in our education systems, but governments must stop co-subsidizing Confucius Institutes—which even CCP leaders describe as a “propaganda tool” of the CCP, aimed at shaping the public discourse on China (The Economist, October 22, 2009). The Confucius Institutes should be encouraged to move out of our universities and join the Goethe Institutes, British Council, Alliance Française, in the community. Their local subsidies can be transferred to local Chinese language programs—ones that are not required to follow the CCP’s censorship guidelines.

In the present day, not understanding the CCP and how it rules China is like not being able to read and write. These are crucial skills, and understanding starts with using the correct terms.

Anne-Marie Brady is a Professor in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is a specialist on China’s domestic and foreign policy, as well as polar and Pacific politics. Her latest books are China as a Polar Great Power (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Small States and the Changing Global Order: New Zealand Faces the Future (Springer, 2019).