Introduction—The Growing Role of the CCP’s United Front Work
The structure and functions of organizations within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are often poorly documented. However, buried inside a January 2019 Global Times article was a reference to “a deputy head of the 12th bureau of the United Front Work Department” (Global Times, January 6), or UFWD. This mention of a previously unknown bureau hinted that over the past four years the UFWD has undergone one of the most substantial restructurings seen in any of the CCP’s core civilian departments since the early 1950s.
Western analysts have frequently downplayed the significance of united front work and the department coordinating it—the UFWD—or overlooked it altogether.  But in recent years, the global discussion about CCP interference has drawn greater attention to united front activities and the UFWD (Wilson Center, September 2017). Without question, united front activities have taken on renewed importance under General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has been working to ensure that all relevant parts of the CCP bureaucracy carry out united front work (Lowy Institute, November 2017; China Tibet Net, October 28, 2016). The past four years have seen united front work expand in scope, resourcing and top-level coordination (Central Institute of Socialism, May 7, 2017; China Brief, April 24, 2018).
United front work (tongzhan gongzuo, 统战工作) is the process of building a “united front” coalition around the CCP in order to serve the Party’s objectives, subordinating targeted groups both domestically and abroad. United front work is viewed by Party leaders as a crucial component of the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), and is now central to controlling and utilizing domestic groups that might threaten the CCP’s power, as well as projecting influence abroad. Building a greater understanding of united front work is essential to countering political influence and interference conducted by the CCP.
New Bureaus in the United Front Work Department
Prior to restructuring, the UFWD had nine bureaus (UFWD, May 3, 2017), as depicted in the graphic below:
Figure 1: The UFWD’s Former Organizational Structure
*Asterisks denote bureaus where names are unofficial, and are based on the author’s assessment of their designated responsibilities.
However, analysis of recent Chinese-language sources reveals that the department underwent a major reorganization up to October 2018. Four new bureaus responsible for what the CCP terms “Overseas Chinese” and religious groups were created, while one existing bureau responsible for training united front members appears to have been downgraded.  The new bureaus reflect the UFWD’s absorption of two State Council agencies responsible for overseas Chinese and religious affairs—the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA)—as announced in March 2018 (Xinhua, March 21, 2018). A third agency, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, was formally placed under the leadership of the UFWD at the same time; but unlike the OCAO and SARA, it has not been dissolved (Xinhua, March 21, 2018; China Brief, October 10, 2018).
The UFWD now has a total of twelve professional bureaus (yewuju, 业务局) with responsibilities ranging from policy in Xinjiang and Tibet, to businesspeople and Chinese diaspora communities. This new organizational structure is as follows:
Figure 2: The New Organizational Structure of the UFWD
*Asterisks denote bureaus where names are unofficial, and are based on the author’s assessment of their designated responsibilities.
Why Were the New Bureaus Created?
The recent creation of four new bureaus follows the establishment of two bureaus in 2016 and 2017: one responsible for Xinjiang, and another for efforts targeting members of “new social strata” (xin de shehui jieceng, 新的社会阶层) such as new media professionals and managerial staff in foreign enterprises (China.com.cn, May 5, 2017; The Paper, July 4, 2016). This means that the UFWD has added six bureaus to its structure in the past three years. These renovations are significant because they increase the Party’s power to directly influence religious groups and overseas Chinese—and may indicate a more controlling approach to the former, as well as a greater international focus on the latter. According to a UFWD article on the March restructuring, “These reforms of united front departments have only one objective: to strengthen the party’s centralized and unified leadership of united front work. Under the setting of united front work, related work will be unified in deployment, planned together and coordinated” (qq.com, January 21).
Twelve official categories of united front work targets exist, yet only three were singled out for overhaul in 2018: religion, ethnic affairs, and the ethnic Chinese diaspora.  This prioritization likely reflects the Party’s assessment of its own political vulnerabilities, and the policy areas of greatest strategic importance for the Party’s ruling position. The tightening political control that has defined the Xi years has been particularly pronounced in each of the subject areas of the new bureaus (SCMP, August 28, 2018).
Scholars have documented an extreme turn in the CCP’s approach to religion, particularly in regards to Islam as practiced by the Uighur minority (China Brief, October 10, 2018).  This shift, exemplified by the concentration camps in Xinjiang (ASPI, November 2018), has coincided with criticisms levelled at SARA for being too soft: a 2016 CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) report on SARA identified failings in its leadership, implementation of policy, and control of religious groups. “The problems discovered by this inspection,” the report stated, “were at their root caused by a weakening of party leadership and deficiencies in party building” (CCDI, June 8, 2016).
Similarly, the CCP’s “Overseas Chinese work” has become an area of greater emphasis for the CCP—even as it has come under greater international scrutiny by democracies concerned about foreign political interference efforts. In 2015, Xi Jinping emphasized Chinese students abroad as a new focus of united front work, and the CCP continues to call on ethnic Chinese to support its growing international ambitions (Xinhua, March 20, 2015; SCIO, July 7, 2015). As with SARA, CCDI inspectors found weaknesses in the Party’s leadership over the OCAO, suggesting that its work on diaspora communities may have been softer than that of the UFWD (CCDI, October 14, 2016).
Between March and October 2018, officials from the OCAO and SARA were in limbo. Rather than receiving new appointments, they were simply referred to as former OCAO or SARA officials. For example, Chen Zongrong (陈宗荣), now secretary-general of the UFWD, was previously deputy head of SARA. At an April 2018 event he spoke about the changes since March, saying: “My old position is gone, but my new position also hasn’t been clarified, so now I’m attending this event as former deputy head of SARA” (Sina.com, November 12, 2018). By October 2018, OCAO and SARA officials had been moved into the four new UFWD bureaus incorporating the functions of their old agencies. Two former OCAO deputy directors became UFWD vice ministers in March 2018, but it is unclear how oversight of overseas Chinese work is divided between them.
The Increasing Focus on “Overseas Chinese Work”
Much is still unknown about the bureaucracy behind united front work targeting diaspora communities, but the UFWD reorganization shows an increased focus on these tasks. Three of the UFWD’s twelve bureaus (Bureaus 3, 9 and 10), and two of its eight vice ministers, are now tasked with overseas work. This appears to reflect the Party’s greater aspirations to influence Chinese diaspora communities, and a sense of dissatisfaction with the state organs (the OCAO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that previously performed these primary liaison roles. Far more resources are now directly available to the UFWD to support overseas activities, and the absorption of the OCAO has brought dozens of officials with overseas experience into the department.
In matters of overseas Chinese policy, the March 2018 announcement effectively subordinated the state Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Party’s UFWD. This gives the UFWD greater control over attachés and consuls responsible for overseas Chinese work at China’s diplomatic missions, more of whom will now be drawn from the UFWD. Government conferences on overseas Chinese work were once hosted by senior foreign affairs officials like Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) (OCAO, January 16, 2015; Xinhua, January 23, 2018); however, in February 2019, the UFWD ran the first-ever National Conference on United Front System Overseas Chinese Work (Fuzhou UFWD, February 26). Local governments quickly followed with meetings to implement the recommendations of the national conference, and to oversee the absorption of overseas Chinese affairs offices by UFWD branches at the local level (Zhongguo Qiaowang, April 12; Fujian UFWD, March 26; Hainan UFWD, March 18).
The Ninth Bureau is the new Overseas Chinese Affairs General Bureau (Qiaowu Zonghe Ju, 侨务综合局) (Wencheng County Government, November 12, 2018). This new bureau is headed by the previous chief of the UFWD Third Bureau (which was responsible for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas united front work), although all its known senior staff come from the OCAO (Chinanews.com, January 4). Many cadres in the new bureau come from the OCAO’s Overseas Department, which had a wealth of overseas experience because many of its officials had been posted overseas. For example, one of the Ninth Bureau’s most senior officials worked in the OCAO Overseas Department’s division for Europe and Africa, and may have been posted to Washington DC and Toronto (CTU Alumni Association, 2017; NewStarNet.com, April 29, 2011). The Ninth Bureau also has specific regional responsibilities, including an Americas and Pacific Division, which were probably carried over from the old OCAO Overseas Department (qizhiwang.org.cn, February 18; OCAO).
The new Tenth Bureau, known as the Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau (Qiaowu Shiwu Ju, 侨务事务局), is headed by the previous head of the OCAO Propaganda Department (zh.gov.cn, November 19, 2018; SCIO, March 15, 2017; Zhongguo Qiao Wang, January 4). The backgrounds of Tenth Bureau personnel suggest that it has taken up the OCAO’s media, educational and cultural responsibilities. This includes managing the OCAO’s international media network, China News Service—which covertly runs overseas media organizations (ABC, March 29, 2018)—and efforts to influence and promote Chinese language education around the world (SIIC.it, November 28, 2018).
Greater responsibilities may now fall under the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (ACFROC), a key united front organization active overseas. The March 2018 restructuring document stated that: “the OCAO’s responsibilities for friendship with overseas Chinese associations will now be exercised by ACFROC” (Xinhua, March 21, 2018). Numerous OCAO officials have also been reassigned to positions in ACFROC. They include the deputy head of ACFROC’s liaison department—who trained and worked as a military intelligence officer before being posted to Canada and the United States as an OCAO official (Prague Chinese Times, December 21, 2018; Sina.com.cn, October 30, 2010).
The Third Bureau was previously known as the Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Overseas Liaison Work Bureau (Gang-Ao-Tai Haiwai Lianluo Ju, 港澳台海外联络局). However, it has since been referred to as the “Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan United Front Work Bureau” (Gang-Ao-Tai Tongzhan Gongzuo Ju, 港澳台统战工作局), indicating that it no longer oversees united front work beyond greater China (Macao Government, January 25). Nearly all its recent media references have related to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. 
It is important to recognize that while these three bureaus primarily target overseas groups, all areas of united front work and all bureaus of the UFWD have overseas functions. This is a consequence of the united front being a way for the CCP to control and influence social groups outside the Party—the key distinction is not between domestic and overseas activities, but rather between the Party and everyone else. Senior Xinjiang Bureau officials, for example, travelled to Finland in July 2018 where they met with a local united front group (FAPPRC, January 4). Similarly, the Non-Affiliated and Minor Party Intellectuals Work Bureau oversees the Western Returned Scholars Association, a platform for interacting with ethnic Chinese scientists and promoting technology transfer (People’s Daily, January 23).
The UFWD’s Growing Role in Religious Affairs Work
The reorganization of the UFWD has occurred in parallel with a renewed drive by the CCP to “sinicize” (zhongguohua, 中国化) Islam and other religions even more tightly under state control (Global Times, January 6; China Brief, April 9). Religious affairs work is now to be carried out by Bureaus 11 and 12, which are almost entirely staffed by former SARA officials. Both bureaus interact with members of various religious groups, and the exact division of labor between these bureaus is unclear. However, the Twelfth Bureau has a Protestantism division (Gospel Times.cn, December 13, 2018), Daoism division (China Net, December 20, 2018) and a Buddhism division (Dangdai Fojiao.cn, December 26, 2018), as well as other divisions that may focus on Islam and Catholicism. No references exist to similar divisions in the Eleventh Bureau—which may indicate that the Twelfth Bureau has responsibilities for specific religions, while the Eleventh Bureau may instead have functional responsibilities (such as overseeing religious schools) in order to avoid duplication of work (Central Institute of Socialism, November 29, 2018).
Like all UFWD bureaus, these bureaus appear to have some international responsibilities, seeking to influence religious activities around the world. One Twelfth Bureau official spoke last year at the founding of the Australia China Buddhist Council (qq.com, April 14, 2018)—which has as its honorary president Huang Xiangmo, a PRC billionaire who had his Australian visa revoked for being “amenable to conducting acts of foreign interference” (Australia China Buddhist Council, April 13, 2018; Financial Review, February 8). In January 2019, an Eleventh Bureau official led a Chinese Buddhist delegation to a forum in New York (Renmin University, March 1).
Much remains to be seen in regards to the consequences of this restructuring of the UFWD. However, it has brought more cadres and policy responsibilities directly under the UFWD’s supervision. Overseas united front figures have already reported increases in the coordination and energy of united front work (People’s Daily, October 19, 2018). This strengthens the Party’s ability to carry out and integrate united front work across the bureaucracy as the CCP takes a radical turn, as demonstrated by the UFWD’s central role in Xinjiang and Tibet. The restructuring has further coincided with efforts to deepen the CCP’s control of religion and to eradicate independent Uighur culture. If the UFWD’s hardening approach to religion is any indication, its interference in overseas Chinese communities is likely to grow in brazenness, intensity, and intolerance.
Just as many nations are beginning to grapple with PRC interference in politics and Chinese diaspora communities, the CCP has moved to strengthen the resourcing and management behind its interference activities. The UFWD now has far greater overseas experience among its cadres, and a stronger hand to coordinate united front work carried out by various parts of the government, including staff in PRC diplomatic missions. In the words of China’s ambassador to Fiji, the restructuring means that “China’s overseas Chinese work will only grow stronger” (PRC Fiji Embassy, December 4, 2018).
Alex Joske is a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre in Canberra, who specializes in the study of the CCP’s political influence and technology transfer efforts.
 See, for example: Report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States, Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance (Hoover Institution, 2018), pp. 151-162, https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/16_diamond-schell-chinas-influence-and-american-interests_appendix-1-_chinese-influence-operations-bureaucracy.pdf; and Richard McGregor, The Party (Penguin Books, 2010).
 The fourth bureau was previously the Cadre Bureau (Ganbu Ju, 干部局). While the cadre bureau has occasionally been referenced since October 2018, it appears to have been downgraded (Returned Scholars Association, October 11, 2018). This is likely because many of its functions for training united front members, such as religious leaders, were being carried out by other professional bureaus and the UFWD’s Central Institute of Socialism (UFWD, July 6, 2018).
 The targets, laid out in the 2015 Trial Regulations on United Front Work are: members of minor parties, individuals with no party affiliation; non-party intellectuals; ethnic minorities; religious figures; private businessmen; new social strata individuals; overseas and returned overseas students; people from Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwanese and their relatives in the mainland; overseas Chinese, returned overseas Chinese, and relatives of overseas Chinese; and “any others who need to be liaised with and united” (Peoples Daily, September 23, 2015).
 The controversial deal brokered last year between the CCP and the Vatican shows that concerns about Party control over religion are not confined to Islam. The agreement progressed the re-opening of official relations between the Party and the Holy See and gave the Party the ability to nominate bishops.
 Other divisions in the OCAO Overseas Department included an Asia Division and an Africa and Europe Division.
 One exception is a Third Bureau division head inspecting poverty alleviation (Hezhang County Government, March 15, 2019).